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Why Top Posting Has Won (2018) (solipsys.co.uk)
55 points by ColinWright on April 7, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 140 comments



The comments here seem to be divided between two groups:

1. Those who were net denizens pre-Outlook, who grew up with sophisticated mail and news clients that properly threaded discussions, along with strong cultural norms to reply inline, trim quoted messages, and keep signatures short.

2. Those whose first experiences with email were post-Outlook, for whom the norm has always been top-posting.

It's hardly surprising that each group regards the other with suspicion, but I think it's really telling that all the people who regard email as a bad tool for managing lengthy, in-depth discussions between multiple people seem to fall into the second camp.


I am in group 1 and this is exactly right.

Top posting limits the complexity of discussion that can be had to what can be kept in working memory of the people involved. Which makes it impossible to have a conversation that tracks multiple parallel ideas at once. I miss the days when that kind of conversation used to be common on Usenet. If you've never experienced it, there is no way to describe what it was like.


It is still available on mailing lists. But those are becoming increasingly rare today.

I really hope things turn around and people ditch the heavy, proprietary clients and childish stickers and rediscover the power of plain text communication.


I think I'm misunderstanding what you're describing here. To me this sounds like what I go to Reddit or HN for. How does it differ?


The standard used to be that replies and the original content were mixed. This made it easy to reply to every point made by the previous person, and easy to see what was skipped.

As opposed to what happens here which is that when I go to reply to someone, I first read, form an understanding, and then reply to my understanding. It is extremely rare to find people going through what someone said point by point and agreeing or disagreeing with each bit.

If you've ever experienced that style of discussion, it is clearly superior for complex discussions. If you haven't experienced it, it is very hard to understand how it might possibly work.

(I often reply here by quoting several points in italics and replying separately to each. That is a strictly inferior to what used to happen, though, because they don't have a way to do the same back and keep straight what they said before, what I said in reply, and how they are correcting my reply.)


This is still a standard in a couple of blogs that I follow, when different bloggers have back and forths.

The comments of those blogs also tend to follow this style (especially if both bloggers end up in the same comment section)


HN and Reddit require far more scrolling to go through all the comments, and make it difficult to find recently posted comments (though Reddit has this feature if you have reddit gold or are a moderator of a subreddit).

A typical newsreader shows a thread index overview which, even for thousands of posts, doesn't require that much scrolling, and makes it easy to see new posts within the thread.


The reality is that since 99% of email users are "post-Outlook", one must "top post" or the others on the mail assume it's blank and just skip over it -- even if you "top post" a message about how you've replied inline.

If I'm on a list with established conventions or if my email partner requests it, I'm happy to have old-style "pre-Outlook" conversations, but I've learned my lesson in trying not to do it by default. It's not a convention that we're going to change.


At work I've seen often the [see inline] tag at top if someone did not top post. But yes, that was sadly the exception.


To make it worst, "outstanding" software such as outlook or gmail (and others, they're just examples) still don't know how to present threads properly (as in who replied to whom), a problem that has been solved for at least 30 years...

So not only you have to read all the replies from bottom to top but replies to different emails in the stack are just sorted by date so they also get presented out of order in the stack.


I think in many ways this is the actual problem. Since these email clients doesn't display threads correctly, their users have to send emails that include the entire thread of conversation as full-text quotes.


What if the thing you're responding to is a response to another response from someone else? You shouldn't need to click 4 different messages just to understand the context. I like being able to see the context without doing anything more strenuous than rolling the mouse wheel.


It's email. There is no guarantee that the receiving end has the thread to display, even if you have sent it earlier.


Decent clients can forward threads, as attachments (typically in mbox format, I believe), which decent receiving clients can read, natively.


But decent clients don't and shouldn't forward threads...


Why on Earth not?

They're simply ASCII files, of various encodings.

And mutt does, QED.


> To make it worst, "outstanding" software such as outlook or gmail (and others, they're just examples) still don't know how to present threads properly (as in who replied to whom), a problem that has been solved for at least 30 years

Interestingly enough, Outlook Express was perfectly capable of properly threading messages. I've always wondered why that feature was in Outlook Express, but not in Outlook itself.


Gmail is bad in lots of ways but it is free. It's a case of "What do you want for nothing?".

Outlook OTOH is something that a business usually pays for. Someone should be able to walk into that business and do a presentation for something that just blows Outlook away. But that never happens, even these days when Microsoft is not the monopoly it used to be.


I use mutt, which is free (and open source). Mutt knows how to thread properly, and gives me control over threading, as well. So I'm always confused about people's explanation for why top-posting is better, until I remember that they're probably using something like Gmail.


If only gmail was free. I made a mistake some years ago and accidentally dropped out of the "free" category. It now costs me US$12/month (along with whatever other gapps i want, mostly). No way to go back (without using a new email address; since I own my own domain, that's not happening).


If you use google as your registrar they will forward to gmail (or anywhere) for free.


I don't think fixes it. Once you fall into the pay-for-google hole, I don't think you can get out of it.


It’s not free. The price/payment operations are hidden.

“Free” is a magical-marketing-mind-control-incantation.


>Gmail is bad in lots of ways but it is free.

While gmail may not cost users money, it is far from free. The average Joey Beercan just doesn't understand that the actual cost is hidden. I'm not sure if the exact cost that G has had on society is/can be fully understood


Gmail actually advertised threading as one of its top features. In 2004, decades after it was already sorted.


Top posting has won because major e-mail clients (gmail) made it the default. When you hit reply, they add two newlines at the top and place your cursor there. You really have to go out of your way to bottom post.


I distinctly remember Outlook doing top-post by default (and making proper replies tedious) way before GMail existed. That's when top-posting invaded everything.


I kinda agree, corporate email clients made it worse.

Lotus Notes wasn't better in my memory and it was THE corporate email platform back then in the 90's before Microsoft Exchange was a thing then Outlook at the end of the that decade.


And that's pretty reasonable. What else should they do? If you're replying in-line you almost never want to quote the entire original message - if its very long you'll want to delete the bits you aren't replying to and if its short it doesn't matter where it goes.


> What else should they do?

They should do what NNTP & SMTP clients did for years: prefix each line with '> ', prepend a line like 'IshKebab writes:' and place the cursor at the end of the quoted material.


But that just means people won't delete any of the quoted message and you'll end up with an entire thread of messages above the actual email, which is going to be very confusing for users.


I don't think so, because as lazy as people are, they still want their words read, and they excise the irrelevant quoted material to set off their own words better. From experience of the old days, other than a handful of strange people no-one had a problem interleaving context and commentary. It was just the way things work.

Top-posting is pure (albeit minor) evil, a tragedy of the commons and a wastage of space. It's also an unforced error: no-one was clamouring for it, but Outlook and Gmail and Notes foisted it upon the world.


In the old days everyone was a computer nerd.


I was socialized in the early days of the Internet, were TOFU posting was nearly on the same level as a cardinal sin.

I didn't think much of it when I started doing correspondence with the corporate world: More than once when distilling emails and do inline quoting I've been accused of distorting the correspondence and should follow "proper" ettiquete.

People never questioned TOFU, they just took the default mode of a certain email client as gospel, as a law written in stone, the ultimate authority.

I've long given up. Text compresses well and all those redundant quotes are made short work of by even by the most naive Huffman tree coder.


Top posting is also useful. It reverses the order of the stack of messages in the expectation that you've read the rest already and are more interested in the most recent. In many cases that's the correct assumption:

* Long email threads

* Long forum threads that people visit every few days to catch up.

HN has an interesting mix of top posting (new comments start at the top), and voting.


That's not really top posting. What I'm doing here, by putting the untrimmed quoted material I'm responding to below my response is essentially top posting (but I'm responding to your last sentence).

I can't think of a comment I've read on HN where material from the parent post was quoted in the way I'm doing now.

> Top posting is also useful. It reverses the order of the stack of messages in the expectation that you've read the rest already and are more interested in the most recent. In many cases that's the correct assumption:

>

> * Long email threads

>

> * Long forum threads that people visit every few days to catch up.

>

> HN has an interesting mix of top posting (new comments start at the top), and voting.


What's worse is that almost no one prunes the quoted emails, so you end up with extraordinarily long emails with a bunch of useless quoted text, most of which are signatures and legal disclaimers, repeated endlessly.

I've given up on fighting the top posting fight and instead try to lead by example by pruning the quoted text so only relevant text is quoted.


What is irrelevant to one person is relevant to another. So by pruning down to what we think is important, we have removed context someone else added to the thread later may need. Long quoted sections of emails are ugly, but they do a great job of preserve the context for anyone to follow.


You make a good point about providing context to people added to the thread later, but it would still only provide partial context because people don't always reply to the most recent email in a thread.

Also it's quite common for multiple people in a thread to respond to the same email near simultaneously, or for people to reply to a message earlier in the timeline. This then creates branches in the message history. The conversation is then likely to settle again at some point on one of the branches and any recent additions to the CC list are still going to miss context.

Also at some time you have to consider that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. Is it really useful to have a 5 word email nested 15 quotes and 1000 lines deep when 80% of the quoted lines are just signatures and disclaimers? The signal to noise ratio is just too low for it to be useful. I've just pulled up an email from a customer today and their signature has 33 lines, 133 words, and 1100 characters AFTER the name and company name. It even includes the email address which is the same as the address they used to send the message.

I know that when I'm added to such a thread that I'll generally just make a phone call to a colleague to get up to date rather than try to make sense of everything. I personally don't have the patience for it.

The irony of the whole thing is that this is what passes for professional communication today. The groups of misfits, slackers, and stoners I hung out with on the BBS's of the 90's had better online communication skills than today's corporate world.

Anyway sorry for ranting, it's not directed at you, it's directed at the eternal september that most of us live in now. Your point about preserving context is a good one I hadn't considered but I think some pruning would go a long way towards making that context more accessible and useful.


I can certainly see your point, but in my experience of late, email communication is rarely used to host lively communication. It's killer in this role was IRC, Slack, Discord, and other real-time communication channels. It's not until this live communication has come to a head that email is used to preserve the decisions and forward them to leadership or outside companies.

So while some intelligent pruning may be of use, it's been made much less valuable over time. I've been added to a few lengthy email chains late in the process, and the lack of pruning was not even really noticeable.


> It's killer in this role was IRC, Slack, Discord, and other real-time communication channels.

Yet, there isn't a single instant messaging client/platform that I know of that puts new messages at the top of the window instead of at the bottom.

I think the root of the problem is that people want to treat email as a chat client where only the few words or line at the top matter, and, conversely, people want to treat chat clients (i.e., Slack) like a discussion that needs threading where responses need to be associated with the text that it was in response to.


If there's any likelihood of others being added to an extended email conversation, it should have started in a messaging client where the new people can scroll back through the entire history.

Email is either a one-off group mail, or a conversation between one sender and one recipient. Any other case is for Slack/Skype/IRC/etc.


Emails weren't really meant for adding new participants to an existing discussion. Newsgroups, on the other hand, could handle this use case easily since previous posts could be seen by people who subscribed after they were made.


I think the only reason why top posting exists at all is outlook and an "optimization" in exchange where the replied-to message is referenced (not copied).

Trying to reply in "proper" e-mail style in outlook wasn't really possible as anybody that tried to email lkml 20 years ago can attest.


Top posting won because that's what makes sense to most of the world. You're having a conversation with someone. You want to open the latest email and see their response. You don't want to dig through all that other information.

I understand that there are a few oddball exceptions. For the vast, vast majority of email exchanges, top posting is more efficient.


Top posting won because that's what makes sense to most of the world.

I don't think so. Actually I don't think top posting has "won". What has won is not caring about how you reply and going with what happens when you do nothing.

People that top post never looks much at the quotes. They stop reading when they reach the blue lines. They read a couple quoted lines at best. So it's not a question of where you place the quoted text, but a question of if you use quoted text at all.


What has won is not caring about how you reply

That's not what won, it's a description of how people use email. Very few people care about the whole conversation, and when they do, it's at the bottom of a top posted message and inside their email inbox. Email is a work tool. Everything related to bottom posting is a strange hobby.


Very few people care about the whole conversation...

So the obvious thing to do would be quoting nothing, unless you specifically tell the mail client to include quotes. That would prevent the useless snowballing. Selective quoting is a way to enhance communication by providing context. If you aren't going to bother, there's no reason to include the garbage.

When it was a hot topic, there was a very tangible problem for mail lists in which some members were on dial-up in countries with terrible communications. Not trimming quotes was disrespectful to them so most lists had rules about it.

Now it seems there is enough bandwidth everywhere, the only issue is that all that quotes are just useless, a cruft from a questionable decision of the authors of Outlook.

Everything related to bottom posting is a strange hobby.

In my experience, people that has been recently introduced to email are oblivious to quoting styles. The hostility comes from those who ignored the rules of some community and were scolded for it.


> it's a description of how people are forced to use email

There, FTFY.


Why attach all that stuff to the bottom at all then?

Anyone who has actually used inline quoting will tell you you never have to "dig through" anything at all. Their reply is there, right at the top. It just might start by quoting your message to provide context.


Of course, decent mail clients should make it so that it doesn't matter either way…


That's an interesting, and non-trivial, suggestion.

I would love to see mail clients try to figure out, given several raw messages, what the flow of the conversation/thread is like, then offer a canonical representation of that conversation, with perhaps a focus on what a single message contributed to the whole. Or one of several representations, among which the user chooses. That would be quite neat - but like I said, it's not at all easy


Yup, that's what my tool does. It wasn't easy, it doesn't always get it right, but it's pretty good, and makes complex email conversations usable, even when people top-post.


And so they did, but the internet grew on the era of non-mature software. Mail clients kept being abandoned before they became decent, while people moved to a new platform.


> Top posting won because that's what makes sense to most of the world. You're having a conversation with someone. You want to open the latest email and see their response. You don't want to dig through all that other information.

Then why don't chat clients put new messages at the top of the window instead of at the bottom?


I've never really understood why so many geeks/nerds/techies complain about top posting. It's simply a stack instead of a FIFO.


Because often an email has more than one point to which you need to reply, and neither top-posting nor bottom-posting lets you reply to all of them with their context.

That's probably a contributing factor to why people only ever answer one question you ask in an email, and rarely reply to all the points raised.

In-line replies would go some way to fixing that.


The incomplete answers is outside this context (as you say.)

The only way I have found that even comes close to solving this is to include a bold summary at the end of my emails (yes, I use corporate HTML email):

To summarize my points above, please answer the following questions for me:

1. When can we...?

2. Who is going to...?

3. What is...?


It's more effective to ask the (final) question in the first sentence. And if you want a clear answer, don't ask more than one question per email. People always read the first sentence but may not scan all the way down. After some practice you'll naturally start to write emails starting with the question but until then just write it normally, come to the summary at the end, and then cut and paste it to the start.


This is like a mini-abstract. Human nature is that you only scan the first few lines and if it's too long (and you're not my boss) then it'll get tossed aside.

People who want long emails are in the wrong business today.


People who like short emails have synchronization problems that can be resolved in a short breath. Otherwise if you have three questions, you’re talking about three back and forth replies. That synchronization sounds wasteful.


This is why you have meetings and phone calls.


This works well if you're:

- In the same or a similar timezone as the person you're talking to

- The one initiating the conversation (this is often not an option if someone else emails you!)

- Don't need to keep a record of the conversation

- In a situation where a meeting or phone call makes sense

Note that many of these are often not the case in e.g. the FOSS community. I'm therefore not surprised that those on FOSS mailing lists avoid top posting.


You should not have three questions (it's lazy) . You should think about what the one question should be and ask that question. Then think about the answer and develop the next question.


Because you read top to bottom.

It is non-orthogonal to stop then scan up to the beginning of the reply and then read to the bottom again.


Top posting makes more sense if the frequency of messages is slow enough that people will have already read the previous messages, because you don't have to scroll past all the content you've seen. Where it fails is in a set of messages where you haven't seen everything else already.

Really, mail and messaging clients should have a way to track each message separately, and just give the user a choice about how they're displayed.


It's threading and the info is there: that's what Message-ID, References, In-Reply-To are for...

But not only top posting won but software made it worse by not displaying threading properly (I'm looking at you corporate outlook, that said gmail and others are the same).


Most email clients (well, thunderbird/outlook at least) will collapse lines prepended with >


So...you reread every reply in every email?


You know, before top posting was a thing, you actually edited the parts you were replying to so that only the bits you addressed remained in your mail. And if you addressed several parts, you separated them, so that it was clear which part of your mail addressed which part of your correspondent's.

No re-reading of every reply was necessary, of course. If you hadn't read it before, you could read the quoted parts in full, otherwise it took a mere glance to remind you of exactly what was being replied to. This made reading emails fast, since you could easily be reminded of the context within a few hundred milliseconds, but also had details immediately available in case you had forgotten.

These days, that's impossible, of course. You get a reply, and have to dig back in memory for what's being replied to, because of course the 1200 pixel signature and legalese in the footer will have pushed the replied to part off the screen. And when, after some scrolling and clicking, you find the original message, it's of course impossible to know exactly which part of the original mail is being addressed in the reply, since with top posting, there's no way of connecting your reply to the specific part you're replying to.


No, but I don’t remember the relevant context in that thread that got its last reply a week ago so I’ll have to refer back to at least some of what’s being replied to if it’s not made abundantly clear :)


For the same reason that you wouldn't pick a stack for a situation in which you likely want seekable FIFO or stream -- you have to unwind the stack and reassemble the order to get context and sync with the flow of information.


I don't understand, the flow of information is the email just above in your mail client ? why are replies containing the parent mail text even needed ? for me they're just a nuisance and duplicate information taking up useful screen estate - I'm grateful for all mail clients which hide it by default.


> the flow of information is the email just above

It sometimes isn't. If you have long discussion threads with >10 people it's more akin to a graph than a linked list.

If all your emails only have (last received message in thread) as context, then you could probably even get away with a chat system instead of email threads. I guess that's why Slack became so popular, it's the common case.


One benefit is that a well crafted inline reply can be shared out of context with a new recipient and they have a chance to understand the important points without wading through an entire garbled thread with lost formatting and a billion HTML signatures :)


Top posting is a pain in the butt if you're using mailing lists or newsgroups where you have a large number of mails/posts to follow up, and where the replies are typically arguments that tackle the parent section by section.


Comments over here are easier to read because there's no top posting by design.


But they require far more scrolling to go through, as opposed to having a overview pane of the thread structure where you could easily find a relevant comment.


Top posting is actually quite useful for context when you've been CC'd on a thread in the middle: you can go back through the previous mails that are embedded at the bottom of the email and reconstruct the chain in your head. And one you've done that, you can just recollapse the quoted content and it won't bother you again for the rest of the thread. (You're using a mail client that automatically collapses this kind of thing, right? I do hope that the complaints about "visual noise" aren't just people pining for this feature…)


> Top posting is actually quite useful for context when you've been CC'd on a thread in the middle: you can go back through the previous mails that are embedded at the bottom of the email and reconstruct the chain in your head.

That's a lot of work for someone to establish context, and they have to start at the bottom to read the original message, scroll up to find the second message, read through that, and repeat the process.

What's useful is to provide a summary of what was discussed and then follow up from there. In either case, having some type of forum or newsgroup would be far better in this scenario because anyone subscribed could read any message even if they weren't part of the original discussion.


Unfortunately, I don’t always have the luxury of getting someone to relay an accurate and detailed summary of the thread so far when I get added mid-way. Reading quoted, often heavily mangled content isn’t pleasant but it’s a very good way to establish this context, and in lieu of the actual messages I consider it the next best option. And since you can’t predict who or where a message might be forwarded, I think it’s good to do this consistently so that it’s available as a fallback by default.


I don't know why this matters so much. Most, maybe 95%, of my emails don't need something in-line or require quotes from other emails. And the handful of times they do then chances are it's going to be a long, complicated email anyway, so I'm cool doing it by hand.


I’ve had a slightly buggy mail setup that can’t quote email sent from Outlook for a few months now. So what I’ve done for shorter replies is simply delete the entire fudged quote and write my response.

It works all the time, except for exceptionally complicated cases that wouldn’t be helped by quoting a random messy email thread anyway.


This post exhibits a lot of the problems with long emails in that it doesn't get straight to the point. People don't have time to read your prose when they simply want the relevant data. Get to the point immediately.

Top posting won because of M$ Exchange.


As soon as an email thread has turned into a discussion/back-and-forth and there are more than two participants you have already lost. The forum was then wrong to begin with. When you have at most 2 people communicating or at most 2 replies, then there is no chronology to the email. If an email thread starts having more than 3 replices or more than 2 active participants then abandon it, and move to a proper mode of group communictation (forum, chat, voice, ...).

The reason so many people in specific tech circles are mad about top posting I think is because specific tech circles still do text based mailing lists as a form of persistent group communication.


I work with a some organizations where it's common for an email conversation to develop with six to 12 participants. Now and then someone suggests one of these other solutions, and we try it, but always come back to email. If you use a capable email client, such as mutt, it's really not much of a problem.


> The reason so many people in specific tech circles are mad about top posting I think is because specific tech circles still do text based mailing lists as a form of persistent group communication.

Discussions on mailing lists are typically in depth and not just one line responses to one line questions, so top-posting would make it much more difficult to engage in those discussions.

Though, I've never really understood the use of a mailing list over a private moderated newsgroup that people could subscribe to.


What does a newsgroup offer in 2020 that a discourse instance or similar doesn’t? It feels like text from the same category as the text-only mailing list.


The ability to use your own client. For instance, I can use Thunderbird. Another person can use XNews. A third person could use gnus. Many news clients have sophisticated client side filtering capabilities.

I haven't used discord, but based on some brief google searches, these appear to be features that discord lacks that news clients have.


> The ability to use your own client.

You will always have limitations. I think it's safe to say that most people consider "no images" or "no UTF" to be much more limiting than "no custom clients" or "no terminal support".

Btw I said "discourse" not "discord" (but both are useful for communication - the latter is a realtime voice app popular among gamers. The former is likely the best forum implementation around).


> I think it's safe to say that most people consider "no images"

These can be done via attachments depending on the rules of the newsgroup

> or "no UTF"

That's entirely a client-side issue. Thunderbird, for example, has no problem rendering UTF-8 characters in email or newsgroups.

> Btw I said "discourse" not "discord"

Ah, I thought you had made a typo. I have not heard of discourse, and it doesn't appear that you can use it in offline mode (like you could with an email/news client. As for the other features like images, url embedding, etc., they are features I don't personally find very useful and they also detract from the actual content (based on my experience using Slack). In fact, I disable all those features in Slack so that I don't have to deal with constant visual distraction of animated gifs or emojis. Looking at discourse.ubuntu.com, it doesn't make it obvious who replied to whom via a nested threaded structure like you would see here on HN or on reddit, and there's no thread overview pane where you can jump to a post you're interested in.

It also seems to rely on central based moderation rather than allowing for client side moderation. That is, moderation that's entirely within the client's control rather than relying on an administrator.

> The former is likely the best forum implementation around).

Yet, sites like HN or reddit that don't normally show images, animated emojis or show URL previews work well for their intended audience. But even those websites make it difficult to see new posts since you last viewed the thread and jump to posts you're interested in.


The simple truth is that inline replying represents a massive cognitive load. Not just for the writer but for all the recipients.

Not only does the email become very verbose with a lot of repeated paragraphs and psychedelic colors, it's also often content that you are already familiar with and don't really need to read again.

Most email threads take place over a 24-48 hours period, which is enough for most people to have the context fresh in their mind, so top posting is a net gain for everyone.

What is a very bad habit, though, is people not trimming long threads, especially when they forward such discussions.


The "psychedelic colours" are a really unfortunate consequence of the fact that Outlook is still incapable of producing sanely quoted text after about 20 years. It's extremely frustrating considering that most email clients did it right back then. Even Gmail manages to get it mostly right most of the time.


I quite like this article, but I disagree with the conclusion, although my opinion is actually in the body:

"... And when the thread is short, possibly just a single email, it's easy for the receiver to see the context, and to know to what you are replying."

So, in short threads, top posting is better for both the writer and reader. I think calling it "procrastination" is infair -- procrastination is about delaying or avoid tasks which will have to be done. Top posting is "agile" -- why put extra work into something now, which 98% of the time will never been needed?


I think you're missing the important point.

When the thread is short, possibly just a single email, it doesn't matter what you do. In-line, top-, and bottom-posting all cost about the same.

I disagree when you say:

> in short threads, top posting is better for both the writer and reader.

In short threads I still want to read top to bottom, I still want to see the context before the reply.

In a short thread, in-line posting (provided your client supports it) is (a) the same cost, and (b) is future-proofing your thread.

It's in-line posting that's "agile", not top-posting.


I tend to read email threads in order, so I already know what the previous message was. I don't want to have to scan past it to find the new content. If I do need to see the previous message, it is there below the new content.

I think this is just a disagreement on reading order -- I want to see the reply before the context, you want to see the context before the reply. Unfortunately, without email gaining more structure/context, we can't both be made happy.


I usually have so many email discussions going on there's no way I can keep the context in my head. I come to each email without a context, so I need to come up to speed.

And each email can have several points running in parallel, so I get a collection of comments, none of which mean anything without their context, so I need to go hunting.

Top-posting kills my productivity.

With in-line replies, especially with colour coding (as most email clients now do) you can skim down to find the reply first, if that's what you refer. It seems to me that in-line replies would serve you just as well as they serve me.

But you're certainly right that without more structure, email in it's current form can't make both of us happy, and for me, it's simply vile.


Please take what I'm about to say as a (hopefully) interesting discussion, and not an attack. We've never met in real life, so neither of us knows what's in the other's head!

I feel like, based on reading your article, you believe that anyone who likes top-posting is just lazy or confused about what's best -- for example "It seems to me that in-line replies would serve you just as well as they serve me."

So, you seem convinced that what I want makes your life miserable (not denying that!), but what you want would make me, and all the other top posters in the world (which, as you say, is most email writers and also email program creators) basically as happy as we are now.

This isn't true. I like top-posting on most threads. I don't like in-line. In-line tends to encourage (in my experience) massive posts, where people end up having several related conversations in parallel, and also huge point-by-point rebuttals.

I'm NOT saying you have to "join us", and I'd certainly be happy with a new answer which makes us all happy! But don't assume we just need to be "educated" against top-posting.


Going off a complete tangent (and this is why I love tree-shaped forums vs. linear forums - I can do that without disrupting the rest of the discussion):

> In-line tends to encourage (in my experience) massive posts, where people end up having several related conversations in parallel, and also huge point-by-point rebuttals.

I never understood why that's seen as a negative. What's the point of having a conversation if longer messages and point-by-point discussions are discouraged? The opposite of that is a shallow conversation that doesn't explore the discussed space. I like when people inline-reply to my larger e-mails, because this way I know what they're referring to, and don't have to parse out their attempts at describing in words which parts of an e-mail they're commenting on.


It's because, on mailing lists, I find those kinds of conversations can often have a low signal/noise ratio. Not always, but sometimes you end up with massive threads that go on for weeks, with increasingly huge messages.

That's not to say that always happens of course.


Agreed, but that's where judicious blocking and muting become essential, possibly on a discussion-by-discussion basis.

That will always be the case in a free-for-all such as mailing lists or forums, rather than a discussion between colleagues/friends.


This is a well-thought through reply ... thank you. I'd love to reply to all your points carefully and individually. But that's not possible without in-line posting. So I'll do that, and trust that you can make sense of what follows.

> Please take what I'm about to say as a (hopefully) interesting discussion, and not an attack. We've never met in real life, so neither of us knows what's in the other's head!

Agreed, and thank you for setting the context so we can agree that people are different, and have different preferences and needs.

> I feel like, based on reading your article, you believe that anyone who likes top-posting is just lazy or confused about what's best -- for example "It seems to me that in-line replies would serve you just as well as they serve me."

I can see how that might come across, although it's not really intended that way. It's intended to make the argument that, when supported by an appropriate email client, (a) in-line posting is roughly as efficient as top-posting, (b) when threads are short it doesn't matter, and (c) when threads are long it can ensure that each reply segment is put in the right context. People aren't lazy, they just don't do work that they perceive to be unnecessary, and that's perfectly understandable.

> So, you seem convinced that ... what you want would make me, and all the other top posters in the world ... basically as happy as we are now.

I'm not convinced of that. What I do know is that top-posting genuinely, repeatedly makes me miserable, and yet it's being forced on me. I wonder if people who are currently accustomed to top-posting are simply trained to think they prefer it, or if it's genuinely better for them. I wonder if people who currently like top-posting would, in fact, come to like in-line posting as much.

These are genuine questions. I wonder if people might come to prefer in-line posting if given the chance, and with support from their email client.

> This isn't true. I like top-posting on most threads. I don't like in-line. In-line tends to encourage (in my experience) massive posts, where people end up having several related conversations in parallel, and also huge point-by-point rebuttals.

Which is exactly what is happening here. But would you prefer that I didn't reply? Would you prefer that these discussion didn't actually happen? Are you advocating not having discussions? That seems ... unlikely.

If the discussions happen, that's evidence that there is something to be said. If in-line posting supports that, that's evidence that in-line posting has its advantages.

If top-posting prevents these discussions, that's evidence against top-posting.

> I'm NOT saying you have to "join us" ...

Unfortunately current email clients, and the way they are used, are saying exactly that.

> ... I'd certainly be happy with a new answer which makes us all happy! But don't assume we just need to be "educated" against top-posting.*

I'm not advocating that you all join me, but I'd really, really like to see a decent solution to this. At the moment, top-posting tarnishes my soul, little by little, day by day.

And thank you again for your considered reply.

PS: I can appreciate that you might prefer not, but it would be nice to be in touch outside of HN. Email me if you like, or put your contact details in your profile. But if you prefer not to, that's fine.

PPS: edited to clarify a few points and fix some typos.


I feel I should top post on principle :)

I've added my email to my user -- I actually always assumed the email address I put in the email box was public, and had just never chacked.

Thinking about my reply, I feel top-posting encourages giving an over-all answer to an email, rather than point by point. Also, while one inline reply like you gave, feels natural, if I was to now make another point-by-point inline reply, we would start that thing I personally dislike, where it is "as if" we were having 5 or 6 parallel mini-conversations.


<grin>

Thanks for the contact details.

The point-by-point stuff works well if each sub-thread can be closed off when done, and sub-threads can be merged when appropriate. I agree that things can become a big mess, and that effort is required to create value.

But that's always the case.

I think we've made our cases, and I appreciate your responses.


Could have been neat if the email client would detect if it was top or bottom posting, and have an option to scroll to the new bits automatically...


To a certain extent this is worse. Gmail have (or had, I'm not keeping up) this feature that it would display threaded "as-if" everyone bottom-posted, but default to send top-posted. If two people were using Gmail - no problem. If you were using a "proper" mua, it was a constant struggle to get to through the replies.

Outlook was/is no better - the infuriating part about Gmail is/was that to the Gmail user everything seemed OK - but at least for the outlook user they knew they were too-posting. Unfortunately, most outlook user are stuck in outlook - so there's no hope to change the situation for them.

I actually believe the state of Gmail and outlook is part of the "death" of email - and "need" for forums etc (that and the death of usenet news. Incidentally why the d-lang forums are so interesting - I just whish it was a bit more packaged for setting up just forum+news (dfeed https://forum.dlang.org/help)).


From my observations, top posting sometimes gives misguided sense of security, particularly when they are not seeing the whole picture of how E-mail works.

I've seen couple of people in the past with habit of keeping just the most recent message, because they think the "history is all there" and want declutter their inbox.

It's a bad practice, but they just couldn't see the possibility someone changing the history. They had hard time when someone decided to prune the old portions, or reply inline without leaving the whole text intact.


Can we also talk about CR vs LF and HTML vs plain emails? They're equally relevant discussions and totally not things that have been settled for ages by everyone but the obsessed.


> Can we also talk about CR vs LF

Based on my understanding of the SMTP protocol, lines in emails should be terminated with CRLF.

> HTML vs plain emails

Thunderbird has a nice setting (View -> Message Body As -> Plain Text) that takes HTML emails and renders them as plain text (complete with the / /, * *, and _ _ for italicized, bold, and underlined text respectively).

Personally, I wish they would remove support for rendering HTML in emails and just display plain text. URLs would have to be manually copied and pasted into a web browser. That would make phishing emails far less effective.


Gmail is why, right? It's not because of any feature of top posting or bottom posting, it's because a generation of nerds grew up using Gmail. (It also mangles threading headers, or did the last time I had the misfortune of long threads with Gmail users.)


I do not do top posting myself. For email, I am using Heirloom-mailx which only does bottom posting (if I can get external editor to work, then I can make it doing properly).

For NNTP (I wrote my own client in 2019), I always use interleaved posting, deleting the part of the message which is not relevant and adding the reply after the quoted part which is being replied to. For web forums I also do the same (but would prefer they switch to NNTP instead, or to support both which may be better).

I don't use HTML email, and I don't like HTML email. Plain text is better.


The work involved in an effective inline reply is to snip out the irrelevant quote yet still leave enough context for what you were replying to.

An inline reply with a large amount of irrelevant quotes so that people have to hunt down your reply is bad.

An email client that does not keep a thread and people can't effectively trace back old posts to recall context is bad.

A default rich text preference is bad. Email client can easily apply some heuristics or honoring something mark-down-like, but the base need be always in plain text.


> A default rich text preference is bad. Email client can easily apply some heuristics or honoring something mark-down-like, but the base need be always in plain text.

I’m a grey beard, using email since the early 1990s. All these years later, I’ve realized HTML email is better in every way than plain-text email.

Basically, you get every “feature” of plain-text plus important semantic additions like hierarchical lists, <strong>, <em>, <h#>, <figure>, <blockquote> etc. that improve clarity of communication drastically.

HTML email can and should be about much more than fonts and colors. A forum like LKML is basically useless without these, but they insist on old-Skool plain text which makes readability suffer greatly.


Do E-Mails have an identifier that tells what was replied to ? I don’t think there is but if there existed such a marker then you build a very nice tree structure.


Yes, that's the In-Reply-To header. It contains the unique message identifier from the Message-ID field of the email you're replying to.

See also https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc822 sections 4.6.1 and 4.6.2


And that's what mature email clients use to present thread trees, to help make sense out of email conversations. Gmail, etc., are not mature email clients.


Observe, furthermore, that References: was in part designed so that a MUA/NUA could reconstruct a tree even if some intermediate messages were missing.


What is top posting? Couldn't find a definition in the article and seems that everyone here in the comments already knows what it means.


Historically, the facetious reply would be to give this example:

A: Because it breaks the flow of information.

Q: Why is it frowned upon?

A: Putting replies above the original post.

Q: What is top posting?


There used to be a big debate about where the reply should be placed when replying to an email.

Bottom-posting means the reply is placed below what it's replying to, like in any normal conversation. This is the obviously correct choice.

Top-posting means that the reply is placed above what you're replying to, completely unintuitively and against how things works in every other context. This is obviosly wrong and bad, but is the hell we have to live with when mailing these days.


top-posting (in which the reply precedes the quoted original message)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posting_style


Your reply goes on top of the conversation, instead of embedded within it.


> Some email clients make it nearly impossible to use in-line replies, and people just won't do it.

Indeed. This is somewhat annoying in Thunderbird and nearly impossible in Outlook.

> People won't do work unless it's rewarding, or compulsory. ... I'm working on that.

Has the author been working on that? I wonder. Two years have passed, after all.


Yes, I have, and I now have a system I use privately within a circle of friends, and with some of my company business. Works a treat, and allows complex discussions that branch, merge, and more.

I now also have an experimental tool that imports from email threads, and re-exports back to standard email formats.

It will never be widely adopted. It's unlikely to reach a level of maturity that would make it acceptable to the muggles, but for us it is incredibly productive.


Have you considered integrating this system into, say, Thunderbird, or some other FOSS GUI mail client?


I don't have the skills, and I don't have the inclination to acquire the skills. I have more work than I have time to complete, and taking on the task of learning everything I'd need to learn to then integrate this into someone else's project is just not feasible.

Currently the tool works brilliantly, but it's not robust, and it's certainly not foolproof. It's not even average-person-proof. It's insufficiently mature, and if I were to try to integrate it with another mail tool, I wouldn't start from here ... it would need a complete re-write.

So yes, I have considered it, and with my background, skill-set, and availability, it's not going to happen.


The site is down for me, here[0] is an archived copy.

[0]: https://web.archive.org/web/20200407075946/https://www.solip...


My ISP is currently investigating ...

Edit: Now fixed ... by coincidence there was a DDOS on the machine hosting my site. Should now be OK.


Asynchronous multi party messaging is a tangled mess.

Top posting is an emergent phenomenon from using the wrong tool (e-mail) for the job.

Basically when you reply to all, you acknowledged which information you have received from and read, and you communicate that to the other participants by transmitting your whole history of your current view of the thread, leaving users the ability to manually do some Paxos if they want to be able to agree on a consistent shared view.

Email clients have to recourse to some black magic to merge the threads correctly. If you ever have tried to use email to constitute list of players for a football game where each participant add its name to the list you will quickly find that there are some errors and you got either some missing players or some extra. Because when two people answer simultaneously, the merging is not trivial to do and depends on the mail client.

There are also some issues with spam filters or max number of people in conversation which sometimes exclude some people from the conversation. So very quickly history of views can't be merged, and of course it fails silently.

There are also probably some accidentally quadratic problems there, but storage is cheap.


Is there an email spec that actually hashes posts, and allows new emails to just refer to the hash it is responding to, and the thread hash-graph. And perhaps as some metadata, some former posts w/ hashes.


Message-ID, In-Reply-To and References headers provides this.

Hashing a post is a hard problem, because an MTA can change the encoding of the message in all kinds of ways, so you'd first need to specify a canonical form for the message. But it's also unnecessary if you can trust the sending mail server to add a Message-ID field that is unique (which it can do however it wants to, and then ensure global uniqueness by appending its hostname; note that a client needs to take a bit of care because of course a broken server may not enforce uniqueness).

A harder to solve problem is that it takes very few broken mail clients participating in a thread before it causes a mess.


The thing about a hash though, is any client could create the hash, or verify it. You could even have consensus ala blockchain type thing.

I guess if we use message-id, then a signed message from the mailserver with the message id would do. But signed messages still usually contain a hash of the thing they sign, no?


You could rely on DKIM signatures for that, potentially.

But lots of systems don't generate DKIM signatures. All systems generate message id's.

Using message-id's for threading has literally worked for decades when the clients supports the relevant headers. It's not the message-id that is the problem, but lack of support for the headers carrying them.


Message-ID, In-Reply-To, and References are the standard way of doing this for anything using a .eml-like format (this includes both email and Usenet).

Message-IDs are supposed to be unique according to the specification. In practice, you can get non-uniqueness if a message is reinjected into the mail system (say you send a message to a mailing list: both the original message you wrote, and the slightly-rewritten message sent out will use the same Message-ID). It works well enough that the way every mail client actually groups messages into threads... is to use these headers.

So not only is there already an email spec, everybody already supports that spec.


That's not really true, otherwise I never would have had to come up with the GNKSOA-MUA.

* http://jdebp.uk./Proposals/gnksoa-mua.html#ProperThreading


The emphasis you should read in the GNKSOA is on the word "only", which is to say, the priority is not to implement References/In-Reply-To threading, but to not implement Subject-based threading.


On web forums, bottom posting has obviously won. I can't remember ever seeing someone top post on reddit.

OTOH twitter appears to have top posting baked into its UI.


Actually, when you think about it, HN comments are basically a big pile of top-post replies, don't you think?

(except for those people who quote a few lines prepended with > symbols)


No, they're bottom-post replies, without the quoting of context (with a few exceptions). So you can read from top to bottom without having to bounce up'n'down trying to find the thread.


You see the replies first and foremost, and the original article only if you click a link. Top-post in that sense.




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