One thing that top-posting is good for

October 3, 2009

Like many Internet people of a certain generation, I don't like top-posting (and often have a semi-visceral reaction to it). For a long time I avoided it almost entirely but these days I'm in an environment where I'm reasonably exposed to it, and I've come to realize something about it.

Ultimately, the purpose of all quoting in email is to provide context, to remind people of the previous discussion if they don't remember it off the top of their head. Top-posting optimizes for the case when you don't actually need this context while still letting you recover if you do.

If you don't need the context, you don't want to waste time skipping over quoted text; top-posting puts the new text right at the top, so you can read it immediately. Plus, if you only need a little bit of context, the most recent context is at the top of the quoted text, right there for you to read next. (If you need a lot of context, top-posting is horrible.)

Realizing this caused top-posting to make a lot more sense to me, because at least around here, the common case is that people don't need the context very often (but it's unpredictable when they do want it). Thus, top-posting is optimizing for the common case.

(No wonder that it is so persistent and pervasive.)

This is of course yet another example of the fact that people are rational (well, generally). When people do crazy things, it's quite possible that they're actually completely logical and sensible from the right viewpoint. You just have to find it (which I think is often harder than it looks).


Comments on this page:

From 98.235.213.115 at 2009-10-03 11:14:15:

I find myself almost always using top posting, with the exception of replies to lengthy, detailed emails which I break up and reply to individual points.

I operate on the assumption that whoever is getting my email just wants my reply.

Cool post. I think we all probably operate on autopilot about a lot of things. It's good to re-evaluate why we do what we do, and how we can be better.

Matt Simmons
http://www.standalone-sysadmin.com

From 74.207.225.75 at 2009-10-03 15:05:00:

It seems to me you might be underweighting laziness, and overweighting rationality, in this analysis. Changing defaults can be difficult or counter-intuitive.

When many email senders use clients which default to top posting, I would expect to see a large amount of top posting.

As it turns out, I do.

-- @bindr

From 71.233.116.216 at 2009-10-04 11:07:07:

Interesting. I have an equally visceral reaction to bottom posting, and I suspect we are from similar Internet generations. I find it incredibly irritating when I have to scroll through 10 pages of thread only to find the part I actually care about. Chances are, in an email thread, I already know the context and only need the quoted thread for reference if there is an odd detail I cannot remember. In the context of a forward where I don't have context, I'm usually want to know why something is being forwarded on to me before I care about the content.

When having a conversation, you don't repeat the entire conversation every time you want to add something new to it.

Me: Good morning

You: Good morning. Good morning to you, too!

Me: Good morning. Good morning to you, too! Nice weather we're having

You: Good morning. Good morning to you, too! Nice weather we're having. Yes it's very nice out.

:)

From 99.236.3.205 at 2009-10-04 11:58:53:

I'd suspect that if email conversations on which you're cc'ed are getting to 10 pages (or even more than a few pages), you've got email use problems going beyond mere top or bottom-posting. If that level of detail is needed, then maybe it's time to pick up the phone or call a meeting. If it's not, then somebody needs to be more aggressive in trimming replies.

Part of my visceral reaction is in part, I'm sure, the "bandwidth costs MONEY" reaction from many moons ago. It still does, of course, but the time spent in worrying about a few extra kilobytes of text is probably better-spent thinking about the contents of that text.

I realised the same thing you did some time ago, Chris - but I still hate top-posting, particularly when people are vague and I don't know what, exactly, they're responding to. Comments-interspersed makes that quite clear. And if they've missed something, either accidentally or because responding to it might require them to take some responsibility or admit something or whatever, it'll be similarly clear. Of course, one shouldn't need that sort of measure, but I've found myself using it more than once in a work context.

-- MikeP

From 71.233.116.216 at 2009-10-04 13:28:50:

"10 pages" was an exaggeration meant to make my point. Top posting is really the most logical and efficient method of responding to posts. I'm not sure what the bandwidth issue is you refer to. Even in the old days, whether you put the response at the top or bottom of the text doesn't change the number of bytes transferred.

Basically, you make excellent points throughout this article. I'm just surprised it took you 20 years to come to the obvious conclusion. ;)

From 195.26.247.140 at 2009-10-05 06:15:46:

How about no quoting at all? Clients have threading for a reason, and if people need to read the previous email then they can look at the thread they already have a copy of rather than sending it all again in a difficult-to-read format.

(For the record, I will tend to hack a quote down to only a line or two for context. Bottom or top posting and quoting the entire thing wastes time on the part of the receiver due to laziness of the sender, imho).

From 99.236.3.205 at 2009-10-05 23:42:00:

@13:28:50 - sign your posts! :)

And what the previous commenter to this one said - you would trim out all but the most relevant part of the passage.

Yes, that's what threaded clients are for. But clients that do threading well are a very recent invention to us old farts. I use them, but a lot of people in my workplace are still with elm, pine, whatever they started using 20 years ago. And old habits die really hard.

-- MikeP

By cks at 2009-10-10 15:49:29:

My overall view on this is that people are lazy enough that top posting would not have survived and prospered if it created readability problems for other people; those other people would have applied social pressure to the 'lazy' top posters, and it would have gone away.

(There is a question of how lazy top posting really is, but that issue is too long for a comment right now.)

Written on 03 October 2009.
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