giving up on e-mail bottom-posting

e-mail,internet life — 15. Oct 2013

like many other people i have been using e-mail daily for many years now, and in all that time i’ve been mindful to use the bottom-posting style. bottom-posting was considered good e-mail etiquette at the time when i started using e-mail, it was listed on every “e-mail etiquette” guide, and i still believe that it is better than top-posting. consider this:


Because it messes up the order in which people normally read text.
> Why is top-posting such a bad thing?
>> Top-posting.
>>> What is the most annoying thing in e-mail?

(source: jefftk.com)

so here’s the rules that i’ve been following until now:

  • write your answer below the previous text, in order to preserve the natural direction in which we read text (top to bottom)
  • reply inline where appropriate to make it clear which statement you are replying to
  • trim anything unnecessary from the message (e.g. signatures, irrelevant text) to help the recipient focus on the important parts

however, times are changing. many people still stick to bottom-posting today, but the trend towards top-posting is evident. actually, it seems to me that the battle against top-posting has pretty much been lost at this point. this is, i think, mostly due to the fact that large webmailers like gmail, yahoo and GMX default to top-posting. update: it may also have something to do with the fact that people are used to seeing the newest content first on blogs and other webpages </update>. if you simply hit the reply button in those webmailers, it will “push” you to top-post. i don’t know about other webmailers, but i’d assume it’s the same. thunderbird still defaulted to bottom-posting when i last checked it, but it’s clearly in the minority here.

unfortunately the situation is still unresolved and people keep mixing styles. i often see messages like this one or this one, where people intermix bottom- and top-posting. that’s just terrible. mixing styles makes it impossible to read the conversation in an ordered and logical way.

another aspect of this discussion is that most mailing software nowadays shows e-mails in a threaded view. that reduces the need for quoting overall, since the previous messages are easily available, usually shown above the current message or at least easily accessible by “unfolding” the previous messages. considering that trend, it seems almost unnecessary to quote at all.

with that in mind, i’ve recently started to transition to a different set of e-mailing conventions:

  • do not quote (neither top- nor bottom-posting), send only the actual message
  • clean up the message as much as possible, delete everything besides the actual message. you don’t even need to keep the “person X wrote on sep. 7th…:”-line, because the information about author and time/date of previous messages is already there
  • if you need to answer to specific points (e.g. replying to each item on a bullet list), stick to bottom-posting (top-posting is nonsensical when answering inline)

needless to say, this approach has some drawbacks, too. it means for example that adding people to a discussion after a certain amount of messages has already been exchanged doesn’t work well anymore, because the new recipient cannot follow up on the previous discussion. the approach also assumes that the recipient has a threaded view in their e-mail client, which is probably true in most cases but not necessarily true in all cases. if someone still uses an unthreaded, strictly chronological view, they will not see the previous messages in the conversation and they may feel somewhat lost without the context. this may be more common than you’d think – for example my university uses lotus inotes for webmailing, and it does not appear to have a threaded view. still, i feel that overall this style – although not ideal – is more appropriate for today’s e-mail habits.

and please, whatever you do, do not intermix the different styles. if an e-mail conversation already has top-posted replies, stick to that, even if it’s not your preferred style. if the conversation started out with bottom-posting, stick to that. do not under any circumstance follow up a previously bottom-posted e-mail conversation with a top-posted answer, or vice versa.

links:
http://www.jefftk.com/p/abandoning-bottom-posting
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posting_style

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