Thursday, March 01, 2007

Yeah, top-posting. Do please stop. This isn't how E-mail works.

I was recently chided in an email for thoughtlessly replying to an earlier email in a form the originating author didn't like: I "Top-posted".

I was slightly annoyed by this chiding . Who needs to be scolded for something as commonplace as top-posting in a business email. What else should one expect from a petit fonctionnair, such as myself? I deal with dozens of emails everyday. They come to me in every format except the one that net-savvy "Internet pioneers" such as himself, would like.

Of the many things I do so poorly as to warrant criticism, this isn't one I'm going to worry about. I'm not going to convert everything to plain text, trim or preface my comments by cutting and pasting the part of their message it is in response to , and I'm not going to try and keep track of occasional email purists so that I can reply to them in kind. Messing with my correspondents' formats isn't helpful to them. It's just confusing. I've certainly never got the impression it is appreciated. I will therefore, without apology or remorse, continue to simply add my reply to the top - Where people expect to find it... And leave their message intact below so that no one on any current or future CC list can form the impression I may have filtered content.

I had briefly considered replying directly to the remark, but, its usually best to keep one's immediate reaction to one's self. A rule to live by... Besides, the imaginary replies kept expanding as I thought of different ways of explaining why I had no intention of following his advice. The following imaginary replies may not be all that funny, but I did have fun writing them:

On Tuesday, February 27, Anno Domini, 2007, at 4:18 in the afternoon, Mr. --- ----- wrote:
>Yeah, top-posting. Do please stop. This isn't how E-mail works.

Citing Parallels from History:

Reminds me of how General Weygand might have lectured De Gaul in the spring of '40; "Yeah, rapid massed-tank assault with heavy air support. Boff! Je vous interdis! That's no way to win a war."

Empathy is Always Good:
I understand your frustration; my grandparents were pioneers too. They not only baked their own bread, they grew their own wheat. They too viewed with disdain the degradation of standards that seemed to go hand in hand with the conveniences and quickened pace of the civilization they had helped to build. Things as basic as daily door to door mail delivery were taken for granted by their children. For my grandparents, it was a 2 hour buggy ride into town to pick up the mail. As the resolve and toughness of their day became things of the past, the next generation seemed soft by comparison.

Blaming the tools:
When people consistently misuse a product perhaps the problem is with the product and not the users. Then again, maybe it's not a real problem. Perhaps it's those same users who've defined how it should be used, even if only based on how they have become accustomed to using it, because it was a faultily designed product to begin with. (Is that also circular logic?)

When in Rome... Life as it's lived:
In a world of top posters, you must learn to top-post. Doing otherwise confuses people. In practice this is no different from writing a letter. The original would not likely be included with the reply but if it were, it would be stapled to the back. Intact.

Anecdotal Statistics - Who can argue with those?
Of the hundreds of people with whom I've communicated via email in the last year or two, there have been exactly two who did not "top-post", both of whom I'd class as pioneers of the Internet. In practice, it would seem, this is not how email works for over 99% of those people who use it everyday. To rip off a quote from Eric Gill, "[readability (or usability, or etiquette...)], in practice, amounts simply to what one is accustomed to." (The other person who didn't top-post in an email to me was Erik Spiekermann. I respectfully replied to him in kind)

Designer Words:
Top-posting is good information architecture: Chronological hierarchy is respected consistently and in reverse order, like any good filing system; from most recent to least recent. Previous posts are kept intact. Do my readers really need to re-read their own words before reading mine? No. But if for any reason they do, they know where to find them; right there, below my signature, complete with date, time and subject line. Usually in a different colour and indented, just to make the difference between one message and the next even more obvious.

Obliquely Suggesting He's Simply Not All That "With-It":Possibly Even Un-Canadian.
"Newly coined nonce words of English are often spelled with a hyphen, but the hyphen disappears when the words become widely used. For example, people used to write ``non-zero'' and ``soft-ware'' instead of "nonzero'' and "software''; the same trend has occurred for hundreds of other words. Thus it's high time for everybody to stop using the archaic spelling ``e-mail''. Think of how many keystrokes you will save in your lifetime if you stop now! The form "email'' has been well established in England for several years, so I am amazed to see Americans being overly conservative in this regard. "
(Don Knuth)


This non-top-posting etiquette, ( Netiquette? - Please! Manners are manners.), is simply one of those odd behavours left over from the "early days" of the Internet, when it was new, exciting and didn't work very well, email was not so utterly ubiquitous and there were no forums. People used email lists to carry on discussions. It was necessary to trim and preface comments because a person could otherwise receive hundreds of emails with dozens of correspondents' posts piled one on top of the other and out of sequence. Before long there would be multiple conversations under the same subject line, and most comments would be something like "I think --- ----- is full of crap." with no easy way of find out what --- ----- had said to trigger such a passionate dismissal.

Now-a-days, there are on-line forums that manage such chaos quite well. The only people who use email lists anymore are either so backward they don't notice the chaos and are still awed by fact they don't have to kick off their slippers, jump into their black and rust-red wellies, walk down the muddy driveway and across the concession road without looking left or right, because there'd be no point in doing so, to collect the mail, or else, they are web designers and programmers to whom the chaos is invisible, because they grew up with it. Like good mechanics they know how to keep an old clunker going and all the see is that it is going. Obviously they also get a kick out of the anachronism of it all. These same people have (or wish they had) ring tones on their phones that perfectly mimic the bells on rotary dial phones. I know this to be true, because I myself once received about 250 emails a week from Usenet lists I subscribed to, and - If I had a cell phone, it would have the deliciously rich tone of a classic black Bell Canada Model 500 dial phone.

Plain text emails, trimmed content and posting the question or comment being responded to , together with the author's name and the date posted and indicated by a corner bracket ( > ) above the reply are meant as courtesies to the reader. This is a generally agreed upon and expected form, commonplace to many who have communicated a great deal via email, and it works well. However, in a world where I would be the only person doing this, why would I do it? It is, after all, a burden that I would bear for the benefit of my readers. They, however are not returning the favour. The agreement in the Corporate and Civil Service Office world, as I have come to know it, is that it's the reader who brings order to the chaos. The author just adds to it and everyone seems to be fine with that. Its the same burden either way and it's fair.

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