Top-posting should have broken more things

Embrace the fact that you're a GUI / phone app, not a terminal app

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Some time in the mid-nineties, my life changed. I was at University, and had decided that this time, I knew what I wanted to do. I’d made new friends, I was in an exciting new city, I was happily three years into a four-year Arts degree with time to kill, and I was pretty sure that I would become a journalist.

And then I discovered the Internet, and I realised that a career in computing could be interesting: not just a matter of writing a slightly better spreadsheet app. I dived into all sorts of weird new-fangled technologies that, I was certain, would be the making of me.

With the exception of the web browser, though, all of them involved a terminal.

This is my terminal. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

You’d log onto a machine that had a WYSIWYG word processor with as many as 256 colours, and could play a mean game of Solitaire, and then you’d disappear down a rabbit-hole into yesterdecade’s monochrome and monospaced 80x25 screens. You started off with Windows, Icons, a Mouse and a Pointer; you’d end up with a editor that was designed for an era where sending a Ctrl keystroke down the wire was a waste of bandwidth, so as a result lesser mortals couldn’t even quit it.

The learning curve was so taken for granted that when AOL brought the Internet to the masses a few years later, wits quickly described it as the September that never ended. The novelty wasn’t that the Internet was difficult to understand, but that the influx of newbies was no longer circumscribed in time.

“Sit down and be quiet for a week or two”, the oldbies would say; “get an idea of what this community is like rather than barging in and asking stupid questions”. And that was generally good advice: while the alt.fan.pratchett newsgroup might have officially been about Terry Pratchett’s books, what the regulars, in their hearts of hearts, really wanted to talk about was what various anglophone countries called different bread products. (That the modern Internet that replaced Usenet still cares about that sort of thing is the best example I know of the universality of the human condition.)

Often from an academic background, the oldbies would look down at people replying with no real content, which they’d summarise in cod-HTML as “Me too!”. “Post something interesting or don’t post!”, they’d say. They’d despair at flame wars and spam, which weren’t part of the plan at all.

“Also”, they’d grumble, “learn to quote”.

Quoting is hard; let’s go shopping!

“How do you quote?”, newbies would ask, and the instructions would basically be:

  • Your news reader will automatically quote the post you’re replying to;
  • Delete anything that doesn’t matter, because (a) we’ve seen it before, and don’t want to scroll past it again, and (b) bandwidth is expensive

Notably missing from these instructions would be what do do if the news reader’s attempt at quoting failed.

For one thing, there were many news readers, most of them were configurable, and as a result you’d see people quoting in a number of ways. Look at this thread on comp.os.linux. People mostly quote with “>” (although whether to put a space after it or not varies), but also use “:”; elsewhere you’ll see “|” or even “AB>” (where AB are the original poster’s initials). Everything’s mostly OK, until you get to this post where word wrap has fatally intervened: the quoting characters have been misunderstood to be part of the message, and are now mixed in with the original message.

Microsoft Entourage for Mac OS 9 was the first email client I ever used that had the ability to increase or decrease the quoting level of the selected text, and that shipped in something like 2000. If you used anything else, manual editing, writing your own macros from scratch (the accepted solution by text editor elitists), or acceptance that the quoting was broken, were your only choices.

Please welcome the top-posters. They don’t use email like you do.

Or, of course, you could top-post.

Bottom-posters like to say stuff like this about the controversial style of replying that Microsoft Outlook popularised (possibly because it was such a terrible text editor that it couldn’t support bottom-posting properly):

> Because it breaks the flow of conversation
>
> > Why is top-posting bad?

But, in truth, top-posters didn’t care about that, because they weren’t reading emails individually; they were reading them historically. They knew which emails in the thread they’d read before, so when they read a new message, they’d read until they saw something that they’d seen before, and then stop.

Suddenly, all sorts of new things were possible. You could say, AOL-style, “I agree”, hit send, be happy, and move on. (Years later, Facebook would invent the Like button, which served the same purpose.)

And crucially, you could forward just one email, or reply to a thread copying someone else in, and they’d see the entire history. For businesses that was a life-changer; previously, you’d have had to have manually forwarded every single email, because replies would have edited out the context the individual emailer didn’t care about at the time, but which a newcomer needed.

(This isn’t perfect: it assumes that people reply sequentially. If two people reply to the same message at the same time, the email chain forks and becomes two threads. But the speed that top-posting gives you makes it less likely that this will happen; and if you see a reply arrive while you’re writing yours, you can just cut and paste what you wrote into a new message without having to redo all your formatting.)

Why is email still bad? Because we don’t understand the changes we made.

Of course, not everything in the land of top-posting is sweetness and light.

The use of HTML in email can lead to problems: if something somewhere (typically code or a table) was marked as “do not word-wrap”, and someone in the chain is quoting old messages and indenting them, the message can eventually end up being wider than your mail client’s window and impossible to read without constant scrolling back and forth.

And sometimes you do need to reply inline to something someone said. The argumentative, nit-picking style of academia doesn’t fit the more conversational style of a business; but occasionally you do need to delve into the details of someone’s proposition. Posters who aren’t used to dealing with multiple levels of quoting end up using colours or bold to differentiate their words from others’, and it can be painful to watch.

But these problems both stem from the mistake Outlook and its successors made: including the message you’re replying to in the message you’re writing.

If, when you reply to an email, your message is a standalone section, and you include the original email as an attachment, then you don’t have to worry about any formatting interference between the two. Someone’s monster sig stays in their own message and doesn’t affect yours. Previous messages are stacked below yours rather than repeatedly indented until your monitor runs out of space.

And if there’s no way of editing the message you’re replying to (and why should there be? That would be a devious and subtle way of gaslighting people into thinking that the thread history was something other than what it actually was), then, sure, you need to learn how to quote. (Or, rather, to cut and paste the parts that are appropriate.) But (a) this is easier in modern email clients which know about HTML and e.g. paragraphs and blockquoting, and (b) emphasises how rare it is to have to quote parts of a previous email in detail.

Learn from the US Constitution: ideas don’t always stand the test of time

Americans often have a quasi-religious attachment to the US Constitution; but whenever the US has been involved in writing a constitution for another country, it’s favoured a parliamentary system rather than the weird hybrid presidential system the US uses. And so defenders of traditional email should similarly be prepared to answer: if you were designing email again, would you do it that way? And have, in fact, any similar systems used your type of design?

The answer is clearly no. Web-based commenting systems (forums, Facebook, Reddit, Disqus; hell, even that dinosaur LiveJournal) either disable quoting the original message by default, or more often force you to quote manually. And they all agree that text is written in paragraphs and word-wraps, with those rare exceptions when you need to control the exact formatting being made a feature or flat-out not supported.

I have sympathy for those people who bemoan the overuse of HTML in email, and yearn for the good old days when emails were just text. But we didn’t write 80-character fixed-width text documents because we wanted to, but because that’s all our tools could support at the time. Now that we have better tools, it’s time to move on.

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This page contains a single entry by Sam Kington published on September 28, 2020 1:27 AM.

The ramifications of working from home was the previous entry in this blog.

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