On Email Etiquette, Part I

This is a response to a post from Aaron Toponce about E-mail Ettiquette. Like Aaron, I receive hundreds of e-mails a day—I’m subscribed to lists which are relevant to systems administration and networking: announcement lists for software packages which my company uses, c-nsp, j-nsp, nanog, etc.

Like Aaron, I also receive about 100 non-ML e-mails that require some type of actual thought before proceeding, and I probably average about 25-50 outbound e-mails a day. Most of them are rapid-fire question/response sorts of things.


I’ve been online for 15 years now, and dealing with USENET, e-mail, the web, etc. the whole time. In all that time, I can’t recall reading anything about online etiquette that wasn’t about nitpicking on formatting. Certainly, when you have a 36pt, green, bold-italic, HTML signature, I will gather the rest of my team to mock your sense of design—in this sense I agree with Aaron, but my sense is that sneering is the teetotaling personal offense’s fun sister.

Either way, all this is opposed to actual etiquette, like “e-mails to non-engineers and those outside the US should always begin with smalltalk, because otherwise you sound like an asshole for getting straight to what you want, rather than pretending to care about sports or the travails of someone else’s private life.” Nobody every seems to ever include that kind of useful information in their bits about etiquette… 😉

Regardless, much of the perpetual shitstorm surrounding e-mail is simply because the tools aren’t taking advantage of MIME to their fullest. Hey, Google: next time try doing Wave as an open format encapsulated in a MIME-multipart message. You can do the realtime chatiness bits on your servers internally. You can’t start over with e-mail but you can make it suck less with the standards that exist already—just like they didn’t invent long-haul packet-switched networks, they built it on top of the existing circuit-switched network.


Sometimes there’s a use for it. When I’m writing The Project Status Report e-mail, I need headings and I use HTML. Otherwise, I leave my default as plaintext because the HTML editor in Gmail—like most HTML editors in web pages—sucks balls at inopportune times, and HTML doesn’t buy me anything for most mails. So agreed, but for different reasons.

So far as the 80-character rule? I’d prefer if the line wrapping were left to the client, and the client did it correctly—that is, I’d prefer that line breaks be used where you’d actually want to break a line, but I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon, since every sender seems to do whatever it’s developers thought was “right” at the time.


I used to care about everyone bottom-posting, mostly because people I respected cared about this at the time. I take the opposite view today, because my use-case for e-mail has changed.

Here’s the thing: when you’re actively involved in the correspondence, top-posting is preferred. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to have to scroll through 50 pages of information I’ve either already read, or written myself, to get to the interesting reply at the bottom for a question I asked you via e-mail 15 minutes ago. And even today, in 2010, with hardware-optimized scrolling (the wheel on your mouse), scrolling still sucks, and doing something is always more expensive than doing nothing. It’s just a particularly noticeable suck when I know for a fact it’s unnecessary… When I’ve already read everything on the post, I don’t care to see it again, so: Top-posting is an optimization for active readers and participants.

When you’re trying to get caught up on a discussion that you *aren’t* an active reader or participant, then you want to read the whole thing from first-to-last. In which case, the optimization for those who are following along requires you read it backwards to get caught up, which is frustrating in it’s own right.

So, top-posting could be said to encourage an immediate decision on participation or not (by making lurking a pain) in an interaction, and bottom posting could be said to encourage others to enter the discussion later (by making the process of getting caught up easier).

Either way sucks, it just depends on whether you want encourage wide participation or rapid discussion. Unfortunately, your tools suck worse because they treat it like a universal decision that you’ll always want to make the same way.

Really, though, your client should be smart and figure it out so it only shows you the unique information in a message by default.


I have 256G of flash memory as my hard drive—on my laptop. Gmail gives me 8 billion characters of storage for free, and you can’t buy a e-mail capable mobile device in a western country that doesn’t have at least 1Mbps download. Thousands of words of wasted text doesn’t matter, unless it being there costs me time, which it doesn’t.

Otherwise, trimming is a hack around a limitation of the bottom-posting optimization that’s there to make it less unwieldy to active participants.

6 thoughts on “On Email Etiquette, Part I

  1. Good post, but lemme troll a little: my keyboard has a “end” key that it’s more efficient than any scroll wheel that I have never seen 😉

    Jokes aside, I guess the main problem it’s people’s experience. I’m an old school Internet citizen too, but newbies don’t know how to use the tools properly (even most of them don’t know the ‘newbie’ word), but they think “that’s the way it works”.

    It’s a Donning-Krueger effect, you can’t teach them.

  2. juanjo:

    Yeah, but then you end up in the middle of the 1000-word legal disclaimer their company e-mail server tacks on to their server. 🙂

    Regarding teaching them, it’s possible given infinite hours, but that’s why I’m pushing smarter clients and wrote the meta section—ultimately, expecting any random person on the internet to write the way you would like to read isn’t reasonable.

  3. One comment on top-posting – it’s good for when you’re responding to an entire email. GMail’s conversation view works really well for that scenario, since it tends to hide everything below the top-posted text, and let you read the email you’re replying to in it’s original context above.

    On the other hand, it’s not so good when you want to answer individual points within a long email, which is *my* usual use case on mailing lists. For that case, it’s preferable to reply inline, trimming all but the relevant parts of the original text. This is something I think Wave might have been good for, had it ever caught on properly…

  4. Well, ‘End’ only takes you to the legal disclaimer if a) your email client doesn’t allow you to hide properly-formatted signatures, and/or b) their email doesn’t have a properly formatted signature 🙂

  5. I think this sums up the problem with top posting nicely. (Can’t rmember where I got it from)

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

    Top-posting: Just say NO!

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