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Abandoning bottom-posting (jefftk.com)
52 points by jefftk on Feb 16, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 54 comments



Bottom-posting, due to its falling out of favor in the mainstream, has become a shibboleth that signifies a certain degree of competence with technology and Internet communication in general. While I'd certainly prefer it if everyone I corresponded with followed proper quoting etiquette, I have to say that it's also fairly convenient to glance at an email message and immediately be able to infer with reasonable confidence what level of expertise to expect from the stranger on the other end (at least in the context of public technical discussions).

Meanwhile, I'll keep trimming quotes and bottom-posting, whether or not anyone else is doing it. It just makes sense, damn it. I know it's a losing battle, and I don't care.

See also: users/MUAs that send HTML only instead of multipart/alternative or just plain text. I read mail with Mutt, and when I open a message and see nothing but angle-bracketed noise, it's almost guaranteed to be an unwanted marketing message or solicitation from some online service I've signed up for in the past. The visual garbage makes it easy to just tab to the next message in a split second without a thought. On the rare occasion that it's something that I actually care to read, I can pipe it through Pandoc to render it legible with a couple of keystrokes.


Seriously?

I have come to associate this particular style as meaning the emailer/poster is going to be an unhelpful, holier than thou, pedantic ass-hole.

It's a shibboleth without doubt, but not for the clique you think.

> I was walking down the street

Better known as a sidewalk

> when I had a revelation

Oh what pray tell?

>that not many people actually use NoSQL

There's a distinction between idiots and people you fail to comprehend.

> And so I no longer worried that I used relational databases

What the poster here fails to understand because of his miniscule brain is that NoSQL is so fundamentally superior to relational databases that only an idiot would use any other thing. It's not even worth saying. Though I took the trouble just now to enlighten this poorly educated OP who obviously shouldn't ever touch a computer again.


I agree that inline replies, when taken to the extreme that you illustrate, are more asinine than they are useful. Personally, I tend to reply to a paragraph or two at a time, a style which doesn't, in my opinion, have the same "you idiot" rhetorical feel. It's just easier to read and understand than a giant block of text responding to several unrelated points, followed by a giant untrimmed quote. Not all bottom posting/inline quoting is of the holier-than-thou nature. :)


True, there is a difference, that is a style you tend to to see on the more technical mailing groups.


Bottom posts often send up the hairs on the back of my neck for this reason


  > Bottom-posting, due to its falling out of favor in the mainstream, has become a shibboleth that signifies a certain degree of competence with technology and Internet communication in general.
I don't find this true at all. I get quite the mix of response styles from people of all walks of 'techno competency' -- sometimes a MUA defaults, especially mobile ones. As mentioned elsewhere in the comments, in business settings (often with engineers) top-posting is also very common. Not everyone uses Mutt. I think attempting to label people who don't follow your preference as less technical competent is a bit myopic.

Further, it could even be considered rude to start bottom posting in a chain of existing top-posting-only.

That said, I do prefer bottom posting when it makes sense, and practice it when it is convenient or the social norm of the community I am conversing within.


It is only one data point among many, I admit, and it would be unfair to characterize someone's expertise based solely on their choice of email quoting style. But in my (completely anecdotal) experience, there is more often than not a correlation between the two. Maybe it's just the email discussion lists that I frequent, where bottom posting tends to be the norm, and top-posted messages mostly come from people who could have answered their own question had they bothered to spend 30 seconds on Google before going to the mailing list.


Thanks for the background. In a community specific setting, it may well be a useful indicator. I assumed you had meant it broadly. I hypothesize that it would be a far less useful distinguishing characteristic in that case.


> it's also fairly convenient to glance at an email message and immediately be able to infer with reasonable confidence what level of expertise to expect from the stranger on the other end

You are confusing "level of expertise" with "number of years on the Internet".

Knowing the Internet seniority of the person you are responding to is an unremarkable data point in all but arcane conversations about the Internet itself (and even then, it's still of dubious value).

I used to be on your side (old Usenet dog here) but these days, I am convinced that top posting is actually a more productive way of communicating for a bunch of reasons:

- Most of the time, you know the context of the conversation so reading the new content at the top of the message saves you time.

- Most old Internet dogs suck at quoting either because they've never learned how to summarize or because they are cutting out the parts of the message they don't want you to see (either intentionally or accidentally). Some will cut too much text, other will quote twenty lines to add one, but either way, you end up visually hunting the new content interleaved with several levels of previous quoting, which is tiresome and entirely avoided by top posting.


Yup. Just because you're old and crotchety and refuse to change your ways doesn't mean you are more experienced or right.

I am sympathetic, I used to read all my email through a terminal client, and I fought the bottom-posting good fight on usenet back in the day. But those norms aren't today's norms. It's a different world and those arguments don't hold the force they used to. It's time to move on. If you insist on being cranky and uncompromising about something try picking something that actually matters, there are lots of choices.


The secret answer is: this is bike-shedding, worry about more important things. Most of the time only the original content in a message will be read, so top-posting is probably preferred. Occasionally it will be more suitable to form a point-by-point reply to another post, in which case it's better to reply inline.

Ah, but I hear you asking "but what about when new people get added to a thread or a thread is complex to follow? doesn't top-posting make it more difficult to get up to speed?" And the correct answer is: no posting style will save you from this problem. This is a fundamental communication problem, and the best solution is to take the effort to add a "state of the discussion checkpoint", list out all of the working assumptions and conclusions so far in the thread and state them explicitly. This is about eighteen or maybe nineteen, give or take, trillion times more important than posting style. A long multi-party conversation is a complex beast with a lot of subtleties, by checkpointing and summarizing the state of the conversation you can ensure that people are not misunderstanding or operating under incorrect or different assumptions and you save a lot of time and effort for getting other folks up to speed as they become involved. Additionally, a lot of times there will be conversations that occur in meetings or over the phone or IM which might involve additional information or decisions which everyone in the thread at the moment understands implicitly but isn't actually spelled out, making it that much more difficult for other folks to understand.

Make it a habit to always be thinking "does everyone have the same information and assumptions in this conversation?" as well as "what roadblocks do people have in reading this thread to get to that state?" And when you notice that a thread gets to a state where it might be hard to follow take the time to re-state assumptions, conclusions, and decisions as well as the facts as you are aware of them to make sure everyone is on the same page.


> and the best solution is to take the effort to add a "state of the discussion checkpoint", list out all of the working assumptions and conclusions so far in the thread and state them explicitly.

That's indeed the very best way to deal with it. But the problem (as this comment nicely illustrates, being bottom posted under a small bit from your excellent comment) is that such effort is typically deemed to be too much work. Communicating well takes an extraordinary amount of time and the speed with which most internet communications take place precludes quite a bit of the work that should go into it.

This leads to quite a few misunderstandings and has ignited many a flame-war.


> Communicating well takes an extraordinary amount of time and the speed with which most internet communications take place precludes quite a bit of the work that should go into it.

Good point, well taken, but only applies to casual conversation environments such as here.

Do we need to establish a "best practise" for environments where accurate communication is imperative, eg diplomatic offices, and how would we go about doing so?


The article misses the point that abandoning bottom -posting only works if you don't quote content from the message you're replying to. If you do, then by all means bottom-post.

The worst case is a long exchange with multiple participants, all quoted, some top-posters and some bottom-posters.

And finally, if you quote multiple passages and reply to them individually within a single post (as I often do), you simply must bottom-post or your message will be incomprehensible.

As far as I'm concerned, a top-poster is either a narcissist or very inexperienced in Internet communications. Or both.


> As far as I'm concerned, a top-poster is either a narcissist or very inexperienced in Internet communications. Or both.

I bet you've not been exposed to many corporate email chains. Top-posting makes a lot of sense there. I often get copied on an email chains from which only the last part affects me. For example it will be a long discussion about some task and then I'll get copied because I'm the person who does X and need to help out. Bottom posting wouldn't work here for a number of reasons:

- I don't care about the project and its planning 20 emails ago - but I still may need some information from those emails. What I need is the task (at the very top) and context if required (at the bottom).

- If anyone tried to edit the history by removing unnecessary parts, they'd most likely remove the parts not important to them, but later on same questions would get repeated as soon as new people join the conversation.

- Leaving all needed parts and bottom posting / replying inline would result in 20+ levels of nesting and each inline section would become its own thread. This is just not possible to manage without some public archive with thread support.

Both styles have sense in different environments. I bottom-post to public mailing lists, because it makes more sense there. I top-post to other people at work where exchange==email, because it makes more sense there.

I used to bring up the same argument and the same quote about why top-posting is bad - but I guess I was wrong - I just didn't see the issue from the other side at that point. This makes me think that people top-posting in html on public mailing lists simply don't understand the other side either, but may adjust with time. As long as we don't assume either side is narcissistic and allow the possibility that we're not experienced in every possible scenario of Internet communication, we may just get along... Just try to adjust to the audience and environment sometimes. This may mean top-posting to some office; as well as fighting with your POS outlook to allow you to bottom-post to a mailing list in plaintext without any attachments.


> I bet you've not been exposed to many corporate email chains. Top-posting makes a lot of sense there.

Yes, but only because replies don't typically intersperse quotes from the original. Once a choice is made to reply point by point, the argument for top-posting falls apart. So I imagine detailed quoting and replying, as opposed to simply replying, is rare.

Example original post:

"Here are my concerns, please provide a detailed response:"

"1. What about issue A?"

"2. Have you addressed issue B?"

"3. Item C has bothered many people in the front office."

And so forth. Replying in detail simply isn't meaningful without interspersing your replies with the original queries. And that, in turn, isn't possible if one top-posts.

To me, top-posting signals that the reply isn't (indeed, cannot be) a detailed response to the points made in the original. And maybe that doesn't matter, if people are talking past each other.

> Both styles have sense in different environments.

I think the above says it -- top-posting means you don't plan to reply in detail, point my point, as I'm doing right now.

Bottom-posting clearly signals that you read and understood every word of the original message. It is to post layout what the expression "I hear you" is to interpersonal relations.


Actually if someone asks you something point by point there's nothing to stop to you from copying the questions to your top post and replying "inline" there.


> Actually if someone asks you something point by point there's nothing to stop to you from copying the questions to your top post and replying "inline" there.

That would be neither top-posting nor bottom-posting. It would be a cybernetic chimera. :)


> (...) corporate email chains. Top-posting makes a lot of sense there. I often get copied on an email chains from which only the last part affects me (...)

This is actually a great argument for top-posting! Totally agree on this one.


There's another reason bottom- (or interspersed) posting does not work well in corporate email chains: Outlook flatly doesn't support it. Quoted text in a reply is not indented by default. The replier has to do extra work to put their reply in a different font or color so it's clear what's quoted text and what's new text.


> There's another reason bottom- (or interspersed) posting does not work well in corporate email chains: Outlook flatly doesn't support it.

Yes, I remember this now. It was an item on a long list of reasons I gave up on Windows years ago. But I'm not sure it counts as a "reason", because it's more an uncorrected defect. Even if you have good arguments to top-post, Outlook takes away your choice. Like Windows itself.


Which utterly breaks for those who read the thread on a text-only mailer (e.g.: mutt).


"Doc, it hurts when I go like this."

"Then stop going like that."


Or any mailer which doesn't present the highly-styled formatting of Microsoft Outlook as created by the author. Which would be, again, any text-based client, many mobile mail clients, and others. Pretty much anything but Microsoft Outlook.

Other enterprise clients are similarly bad. Lotus Notes, and others (though these are the two most commonly found ones).

Straight text is much more fungible and portable than highly-specified formats. There's a reason technical email etiquette and formatting rules emerged, though yes, contemporary business and non-technical use is diverging from these practices.


Smartphones too. I top-post from my iPhone, bottom-post everywhere else.


Agreed - top posting is how corporates do it.

Don't try to be the kid who doesn't play the game like everyone else. And noone in corporates will use mutt. Hell why do that, its 2013 for crying out loud


The battle was lost long ago. I've tried insisting on bottom-posting, with the result that people sometimes wouldn't even see the reply below the quoted text. Raging against top-posters doesn't pay the bills, unfortunately.

Edit: The only place bottom-posting still works is on technical mailing lists.


> Edit: The only place bottom-posting still works is on technical mailing lists.

And Hacker News.


I hate top-posting. To a degree that if I'm included in the middle of some on-going mail thread, I often rewrite top-posting quotes into bottom-posting quotes before replying.

Call me a mad guy, but it usually allows me to write much better response (in terms of quality and readability). (Incidentally, it would often allow writing better responses by previous interlocutors, if they only started doing so...)

Exceptions can be two mostly:

- Sending from the phone, where proper quoting is quite inconvenient and it's too easy to mess everything.

- Writing tl;dr summaries at the top of the mail, that are simply required for some people (but I use proper bottom-posting later).

The most important part of bottom-posting is ability to clearly respond to particular parts of the mail in a quote-response, quote-response manner. Top-posting usually works like obfuscation, making leaving some things unanswered much harder to notice. It's definitely useful in corporate environments, that goes without saying...

---

My second biggest problem regarding mails is that people rarely _really_ read them, which makes these textual conversations hard and longer than necessary. Sometimes I feel that I am the only one that reads whole mails before replying to them.


If top posting is so awesome, why aren't the comments on his blog above the text?


Because a blog post is different from an email discussion.


Modern email clients use threading and quote-hiding to make everything look like bottom-posting. People who want to see context for your reply can just look up and see previous messages.

I agree that you want discussion posts in chronological order, oldest to newest reading down, whether this is on a blog or email, but technology has changed so that this is no longer the responsibility of the poster.


Where do you read that it's so awesome? He doesn't say that at all, just that technology now routes around it for the most part. Try reading before responding.


Email is broke to the degree that we have to think about this. Maybe even more.


You no longer have to think about it. Just send your message in the way that's the default for your mail client, and modern mail readers like gmail will make it easy for your readers to get appropriate context.


Could you explain what you mean?


Bottom posting is also good for people who might have missed a message in the thread. For example, I sometimes see messages incorrectly classified as spam, and it is really annoying to have to scroll all the way down to the bottom of an email just to see what I missed.

It is also annoying to deal with people who never remove quotes they are not replying to. Bottom posting encourages the removal of quotes beyond a certain level; people who top post routinely ignore the quoted text.

I guess the point of the article is not that bottom posting should die, but that quoting messages at all should die. Remove quoted text or make it optional, and the bottom/top posting argument goes away entirely. If you assume everyone receives all messages anyway, what is the point of quoting?

(Edit: Personally, I would rather not give up quoting, because messages may be lost and I would like to see whatever context I missed. It is also nice to see the context of a reply; "That is a bad idea!" could refer to anything in a message, bottom posting helps to clear it up.)


> Bottom posting is also good for people who might have missed a message in the thread.

But it's worse for people who have been diligently following the email discussion the whole time. "Hey, could you repeat that first bit again and again and again? Yup!"

I also don't like to delete old context, because a late email could eventually get forwarded to a new party, in which case having the complete context is an advantage.

In summary: I assume the common case is that a few people with normal memories are reading the mail, and I can just cut to the chase by top-posting my reply. But I preserve the old stuff at the bottom for the rare but important case of new participants.

P.S. I realize that I'm bottom posting my reply.


I also don't like to delete old context, because a late email could eventually get forwarded to a new party, in which case having the complete context is an advantage.

A proper mail client will be fully capable of forwarding the full thread (or any relevant portion) to another user. Whose proper email client will be capable of interpreting the attachment as threaded email and displaying it properly.


How often have you done this? How often does it work? What fraction of people you communicate with are using sufficiently proper mail clients?


In technologically-oriented communities, fairly often. In others, not so much.

Had an interesting situation with a legal case a few years back, much of which revolved around email evidence. Using standard Unix tools, cutting through, searching, organizing, and categorizing a large volume (thousands) of emails was fairly straightforward. Working with a legal team who had access only to conventional Windows products was ... maddening. Turns out, of course, that only a very small handful of documents were ultimately relevant to the court presentation, but understanding the context in selecting and presenting those was greatly assisted by being able to effectively process far more.


Well, if you don't quote, you can quickly lose context because everything is threaded on a subject line consisting entirely of "question" or "hi". Plus, top-posters are the ones most likely to not include In-Reply-To headers.


"Well, if you don't quote, you can quickly lose context because everything is threaded on a subject line consisting entirely of "question" or "hi"."

Agreed, see my edit; I would rather not see quoting go the way of the dodo. Unfortunately, top-posting discourages quoting entirely; the quoted text just piles up at the bottom of the message, easily turning into hundreds of kilobytes of text, until someone is kind enough to delete it (usually a bottom-posting sort of person).

"Plus, top-posters are the ones most likely to not include In-Reply-To headers."

Shouldn't that be done automatically by one's email client?


Outlook at least used to be a big offender in not including those headers.


Blackberry too, and I suspect a few webmail clients.


Edit your quotes. We don't need to (re)read the whole thing.


shrug I will always bottom-post when context matters and always top-post when I expect the reader to know the context implicitly. And I will never read an email chain that requires me to start from the bottom and work my way up.


I usually top-post because why would someone I reply to want to see their own text first? Gmail hides the quoted part anyway.

The exception is either when it's already a big group thread in which everyone bottom posted, or if I'm replying in-line to several parts of the email.

I don't get why some people are so annoyed by bottom and/or top posting though. For me it all seems to go quite naturally...


Top-posting for a one-on-one thread is perfectly fine, unless you need to illustrate the specific text you are replying to (which I frequently do). When there are more than two people, though, there are other issues to consider, like the fact that some messages might not have been received by everyone (e.g. due to spam filters).

The problem with top-posting is that the quoted text basically becomes useless. Why even bother with it?


I don't bother with it. I ignore it.


I gave up on bottom-posting - and on interspersing my comments with the quotes - years ago. I was talking to too many people who hadn't learnt the conventions of the Usenet era and just looked weird.

I usually find myself putting a tiny bit more work into the message to have it make sense even if you don't bother skimming the quotes.


I'll give up bottom posting (and inline posting) when I die. Well, that's what I want my position to be anyway. But, truth be told, it's a lot of work to re-jigger things for bottom posting with many modern email clients. And so I do find myself sometimes falling back to top-posting out of laziness - especially when emailing from my phone using GMail.

Most of the time, however, I bottom post. Maybe I'm just showing my age, but top-posting kinda annoys me. Now you kids get off of my lawn.


I've always top posted because it details the entire history of who said what and when to people that may be added to the discussion later or forwarded to another party as an FYI. They don't have previous context without the whole thread available.


I used to bottom-post until I noticed that I was the only person doing it over several years of communication, and that following the old convention now made _me_ look like the newbie who doesn't know how to use email.

Top-posting is efficient for single responses to single-issue threads because it brings the newest and most relevant message to the forefront. Context is not a problem for most messages because readers who have been following the discussion can get sufficient context from the sender and subject line. For the minority of messages where it is a problem, the parent post is right after the text. Context does become a bigger problem when there is a long thread with multiple users discussing multiple topics using the same subject line, as often used to happen on Usenet but which I have rarely seen in email.

I will still inline-post if replying to multiple issues in a long post like in old Usenet debates.




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