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July 12, 2007 1:03 PM

As a participant in Usenet during the mid-90's, I had the old-school netiquette drilled into me for quoting messages to which I was replying. The process is succinctly described by John Gruber in his article, On Top.

This style of quoting could be expressed in the form of a pattern:


Name:

Usenet Quoting

Problem:

When responding to a message, the writer wants to be sure readers can follow the resulting conversation.

Forces:

The architecture of Usenet means that:

  • Disk space and message-transmission bandwidth are at a premium
  • A reply may arrive on a server before the message it is replying to, or the original message may simply never arrive
  • Old messages may be deleted (expired) at any time
  • Conversations will be read by people who have had no involvement in the prior conversation
  • Conversations may involve any number of people, with forking subjects

Solution:

Include just enough quoted information from the previous post(s) in the conversation to provide context for your reply, but no more.

The point that you are trying to make should be understandable even if your reader can not access any of the other messages in the thread. On the other hand things other people have said that are not relevant to your post's direct point should be discarded.

This will ensure the thread of conversation is maintained with the minimum waste of bandwidth or storage.

Interspersing your responses with the relevant part of the message you are responding to will make your response more readable, and make it easier for future responders to isolate each point you are making when they are choosing what to quote in their reply.

Notes:

This quoting style encourages a style of argument where the poster's points are extracted from the original article as pull-quotes and discussed one-by-one. In fact, when arguing with someone on Usenet, netiquette almost requires that you delete from your response everything your opponent says that you can not disagree with.

This can distort the original piece a great deal, especially if the original is no longer available to read.


Corporate email communication in the noughties, however, has a totally different set of constraints:

  • Bandwidth and storage are somebody else's problem
  • Multi-party email conversations are mostly performed via CC: lists
  • Mail clients may or may not have decent threading implementations
  • Occasionally, someone new will be added to the CC: list who has no access to the prior conversation

Top-posting over entire messages actually makes sense in this context. Having the entire previous conversation available "bottom-up" at the end of the message allows anyone to read the full history of the discussion, regardless of how badly their mail-client sucks, even if they have played no part in the prior conversation. Everyone who already knows what is being discussed can just stop reading after the signature of the most recent poster.

Also, by reading just the most recent message in a conversation first, down through the quoted material to the point where you recognise something you've read before, you can be sure you're up to date.


In traditional, folder-based mail clients; new messages appear in your inbox and are moved into some storage folder (or deleted) after you read them, while messages that you send go into a third, unrelated folder. This design almost seems deliberately tooled not to show you messages in the context of their conversation. Even personal, one-on-one emails still need enough quoting to ‘nudge’ the reader back to where the conversation left off.

On the other hand, these forces would be reasonably familiar to a GMail user:

  • Bandwidth and storage are effectively infinite
  • Messages are never deleted
  • Each mail is displayed in the context of the conversation in which it occurred, accompanied by excerpts of previous messages

Therefore… if you're in an email conversation with one other person and you're both using Gmail, don't bother quoting at all.

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