Why you should bottom post + small rant

Proper email form (specifically top vs bottom posting) is something that has been on my mind lately. I am trying to share the benefits of trimming and bottom posting with my co-workers. They don’t seem to be taking kindly to it.

I would say my largest pet peeve when trying to teach good email habits is the “It takes to long” comment. In a business setting this sends shooting pains through my bones. Essentially you are saying the customer is not deserving or worth the time to take a few extra seconds when crafting a response.

If your interested in what my thoughts on top vs bottom posting read on.

Most of this is based on old Usenet tradition but that does not mean that they have no place everywhere else. First lets talk about Top-Posting vs Bottom-Posting. Rfc1855 (http://www.rfc1855.net) while not a standard has many good rules of thumb including this gem.

If you are sending a reply to a message or a posting be sure you summarize the original at the top of the message, or include just enough text of the original to give a context. This will make sure readers understand when they start to read your response. Since NetNews, especially, is proliferated by distributing the postings from one host to another, it is possible to see a response to a message before seeing the original. Giving context helps everyone. But do not include the entire original!

While the popularity of NetNews may have wained the comment holds true. Context is very important when reading email. Not everyone can remember every single piece of a conversation. Even if you can remember every different conversation path for customers in a given day or two it is not uncommon to have an issue arise that requires you to look back through your old emails to determine exactly what was said. With business email it is less likely that you will see a response before you see the original message but it is possible especially if other parties are carbon copied or included passively in a conversation. It is wasteful to send the entire original message with a reply. Emails are stored somewhere and while storage is cheap that does not mean that multiple copies of the same content should be stored for no reason. Not only is it wasteful it is inconsiderate to people with slow connections and limited bandwidth. You may think that everyone has broadband now but have you considered the ever increasing number of people who use mobile devices? They are downloading extra information causing their email to take longer to load. If you top post to the person with the mobile device and they need to look back to see what your are referring to they need to scroll down and read the entire content of their previous message to get context.

More on Top-Posting:
In normal conversations one does not answer something that has not been said yet (unless its jeopardy, and frankly business is not a game). Books are normally read from left to right and top to bottom.

Bad arguments against bottom posting:

  • “I don’t like to scroll past what I already said”
  • When bottom or interleaved posting is done correctly there are not not more than a few lines of quoted text to give context. Unless you have a very tiny screen you shouldn’t have to scroll and if you do it won’t be far. Also I don’t like to scroll past your entire message and hunt through my previous email when I need to double check what I had written to you that you are responding to. I have to scroll twice as far (down and back up), and I have to hunt through the entire content of my previous email to get context.

  • “Customers reply to my reply and ask if I responded (they cant see the response at the bottom of the email)”
  • You are not trimming correctly, I would complain also. Trimming email and context is the key.

  • “It takes to long”
  • If you really place so little value on your communications with a customer don’t bother responding.

    Still don’t agree? Have a look at these examples.

    I am going to list my preferred reply method first, just so you can get a feeling for the context argument.

    Preferred Reply:


    From: Nick Anderson
    Date: Thu, 30 Oct 2008 23:48:11 -0500
    To: Nick Anderson
    Subject: Re: Hi
    
    On Thu, Oct 30, 2008 at 11:46:53PM -0500, Nick Anderson wrote:
    > Hi I really like product x. Can I get it in brown?
    
    Yes
    
    > I have a short timeline on this order can it be delivered in 3 days?
    
    Unfortunately brown takes 5 days minimum.
    
    --
    me
    my contact info

    Bottom Posting with trimming:


    From: Nick Anderson
    Date: Thu, 30 Oct 2008 23:48:11 -0500
    To: Nick Anderson
    Subject: Re: Hi
    
    On Thu, Oct 30, 2008 at 11:46:53PM -0500, Nick Anderson wrote:
    > Hi I really like product x. Can I get it in brown?
    > I have a short timeline on this order can it be delivered in 3 days?
    
    Yes we have product x in brown.
    Unfortunately brown takes 5 days minimum.
    
    --
    me
    my contact info

    Were you able to easily understand that information? Now that you have seen a proper reply take a look at the original email and a typical reply.

    Original Email:


    From: Nick Anderson
    Date: Thu, 30 Oct 2008 23:46:53 -0500
    To: [email protected]
    Subject: Hi
    
    Hi I really like product x. Can I get it in brown?
    I went to the store, I bought a watermelon. It didn't taste very good.
    I wonder if I can get my money back. While I was there I watched the
    butcher he is big and strong. Then my dog took a wee in my car so it
    stunk.
    I have a short timeline on this order can it be delivered in 3 days?
    
    Thanks
    --
    some guy
    some company
    some contact info
    
    This email is only intended for the person I sent it to. If you are
    not that person please delete it immediately. If you do not I will hunt
    you down and prosecute to the full extent of the law. After all it is
    your fault I accidentally sent it to you. Plus a couple other lines of
    mumbo jumbo.

    Bottom Post without trimming:


    From: Nick Anderson
    Date: Thu, 30 Oct 2008 23:56:26 -0500
    To: Nick Anderson
    Subject: Re: Hi
    
    On Thu, Oct 30, 2008 at 11:46:53PM -0500, Nick Anderson wrote:
    > Hi I really like product x. Can I get it in brown?
    > I went to the store, I bought a watermelon. It didn't taste very good.
    > I wonder if I can get my money back. While I was there I watched the
    > butcher he is big and strong. Then my dog took a wee in my car so it
    > stunk.
    > I have a short timeline on this order can it be delivered in 3 days?
    > Thanks
    > --
    > some guy
    > some company
    > some contact info
    > This email is only intended for the person I sent it to. If you are
    > not that person please delete it immediately. If you do not I will hunt
    > you down and prosecute to the full extent of the law. After all it is
    > your fault I accidentally sent it to you. Plus a couple other lines of
    > mumbo jumbo.
    
    Yes we have brown available.
    Unfortunately brown takes 5 days minimum.
    --
    me
    my contact info

    Wow what a pain, had to scroll through all the ramblings, plus the huge signature to see your response. Still have to read the entire previous message to filter out the content you were replying to.

    Typical Top-Post Reply:


    From: Nick Anderson
    Date: Thu, 30 Oct 2008 23:56:26 -0500
    To: Nick Anderson
    Subject: Re: Hi
    
    Yes we have brown available.
    Unfortunately brown takes 5 days minimum.
    --
    me
    my contact info
    
    On Thu, Oct 30, 2008 at 11:46:53PM -0500, Nick Anderson wrote:
    > Hi I really like product x. Can I get it in brown?
    > I went to the store, I bought a watermelon. It didn't taste very good.
    > I wonder if I can get my money back. While I was there I watched the
    > butcher he is big and strong. Then my dog took a wee in my car so it
    > stunk.
    > I have a short timeline on this order can it be delivered in 3 days?
    > Thanks
    > --
    > some guy
    > some company
    > some contact info
    > This email is only intended for the person I sent it to. If you are
    > not that person please delete it immediately. If you do not I will hunt
    > you down and prosecute to the full extent of the law. After all it is
    > your fault I accidentally sent it to you. Plus a couple other lines of
    > mumbo jumbo.

    Not horrible but what if the person you sent the response too was getting color information for different products from different people and they sent that right before going on a weekend ski trip. When they get back to read your reply they might have to read below to see what exactly they were asking you to begin with. Not only that they have to weed through their side story about the grocery store to filter out the 2 different questions they asked. Plus its ugly with all of that quoted text. Ever need to search email for something? Guess what. The more unnecessary text you have in each email the longer a search is going to take because its going to search through the entire text.

    3 Comments

    • My two cents worth –

      The first failure is the Subject line. The lack of information in the subject should forces both parties to lose the context of the discussion. I typically correct that problem by re-writing the subject on my reply.

      The untrimmed bottom post is the hardest to follow, simply because at the rate that a typical IT worker filters through e-mails, scrolling down through every e-mail in your inbox is not an option.

      The key to top posting is to re-state essential information in the first screen full of text (no scrolling necessary) and to make sure the subject is relevant. If you don’t do that, context can be lost – as you indicate.

      The threaded reply works, but only if trimmed. Most people don’t trim, therefor a threaded reply doesn’t work for most people. A threaded reply, trimmed, might be the best for maintaining context, but a threaded reply, untrimmed, is the worst.

      Oh – and I always top post. 😉

    • I could live with top posting if the replied to text was trimmed. By not trimming you are wasting my disk space and bandwidth. Full text searching becomes 2 times as slow because with everyone not trimming there is 2 times the text.
      Oh one more thing, I checked out your blog ….. why no have your comments top post? 😉

    • mrkbsm Windows XP Firefox 3.0.3 wrote:

      Seriously… I don’t get it.

      >I could live with top posting if the replied to text was
      >trimmed. By not trimming you are wasting my disk space and
      >bandwidth. Full text searching becomes 2 times as slow
      >because with everyone not trimming there is 2 times the text.

      >Oh one more thing, I checked out your blog ….. why no have
      >your comments top post? 😉

      Or do I?!? mua-ha-ha

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