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Email Netiquette:
Don't Let Your Career Go Down In Flames

Copyright (C) 2000-2001, 2012 by Steve Litt, All rights reserved. Material provided as-is, use at your own risk. 


Eleven Years in the Making

This document sat, unchanged, from 2001 until May 2012. Then I added to it. What happened was that for several years it seemed that netiquette was pretty much summed up by "don't flame". But in the eleven years that have passed, the composition of emailer users has gone from a pretty much Geek population with a high degree of mental organization and logic, to basically everyone over 35. Most 20th century email users could write a computer program or architect a network or write a bank-suitable business plan. These people had no patience for the concept of "you know what I mean" -- they wrote to be unmistakably and unambiguously understood, even in their flames. Today's typical emailer is a whole lot more right-brained, writes in a way he or she thinks is clear, but is often abiguous and especially tiring when a recipient must at least scan 500 non-spam emails per day.

The Trouble with Flames

Time was (1996) you could keep your on-line life entirely separate from your career. Those days are gone. Today's email is used to write software, write books, formulate business strategies, hammer out contracts, and just about everything else that was once labeled "collaboration" or "groupware". Any technologist ineffective in the email arena will fall hopelessly behind.

So it never fails to amaze me how some truly gifted technologists deliberately nuke their email presence with flames, personal insults, and off topic posts. In June 1999 I personally witnessed an excellent ~60 member Linux User Group ripped in two by a flame war started and sustained by five, count em five, people. Today, in July 2000, one of the LUG's appears to be dying, and the other has just now regained the membership, success and community involvement of the original. A years worth of progress destroyed by five people whose only priority was to ram their opinion down everyone's throat by outshouting all others.

I've compiled a list of short clips from that  flame war that split a LUG. These are inflamitory and in some cases use vulgar language, so please do not click this link if such language offends you, or if you are under 18:

Short clips from the 6/27/1999-7/10/1999 ELUG splitting flame war

Most mailing lists are archived. Almost all of the flames listed in the preceding link can be located, and displayed in full, with an AltaVista search, complete with author's name and email address. Try the lookup yourself, based on the text from the clips.

These flames will hang around forever, like landmines, waiting to be discovered years from now by the authors' business associates. Imagine going to a job interview, only to have the interviewer say "Oh yes, you're the *^%*&^&% that flamed so and so on the such and such mailing list. We look for a higher level of maturity from our employees. Thanks but no thanks".  

Flame Avoidance

If it were easy refrain from flaming, there wouldn't be so many flames. Believe me, most flamers are wonderful people in person. I once witnessed a particularly nasty and personal flamewar between two LUG members. Having lived in Venice, California, where insults are settled in ways often requiring hospitalization for one or both parties, I expected a fistfight at the next LUG meeting. The two got together, laughing and joking. Some of the nastiest flamers are the nicest people. But in the end, "but he's nice in person" does little to blunt the career trauma caused by ill-advised emails.

You and I are nice people, but nice people flame unless they affirmatively guard against it. Here's how not to flame...
 

The preceding can pretty much prevent flame wars. But there are many smaller issues that should be remembered:

Doing Business Through Email

Next time you're in the bookstore, check out Samba Unleashed. Then ponder the fact that over 90% of the communication leading to the creation of that book was done via email. Authors were found and recruited, contracts were negociated, chapters and graphics were submitted, editor queries were sent and returned via email. Email was used to ask and answer questions on writing style and technical details.

For those who know how to use it, email is an ideal way of doing business. Unlike the phone, it doesn't interrupt. Unlike a voicemail message, it's electronically searchable and takes up little space. It's small enough to make it practical to keep it forever. Unlike snailmail it's fast, and it's immediately storable in the world's most efficient file cabinet, the hard disk.

The very sparseness of email makes it effective for those knowing its use. Without fonts, text attibutes and pictures you can get right down to the task of writing. No more trying to make yourself "look like a big corporation". Everyone, from the Fortune 500 honcho down to the guy who cleans the floors in the 5 man business, uses text email. Oh sure, a few people use all sorts of fonts and attributes. But these tend to be spammers. Or raw newbies trying to impress with decorative junk. But those of us needing fast and efficient communication for our livelihood use primarily text email. And we always will. Because text email is much faster than dictating the email so a secretary can format it in pretty html.

Email enables the verbally challenged to finally make the money they deserve. Take me for example. Verbally, I'm not particularly "quick on the uptake". After every discussion, I think of 10 "I should have said"s. Invariably I'm left behind. I don't think as fast as others.

But often I think deeper. And more accurately. With email, I can take the time to say it right, and often come out ahead of the fast talkers. There are many, many more like me. With email we're finally experiencing the success we've always been capable of.

And Eleven Years Pass

Everything written above this section was written in 2001 or before. Everything below it was written in 2012 or after.

Here are some of the new issues I've seen pop up between 2001 and 2012:
A discussion of these follows.

Incorrect Amount of Quoted Text

Don't you wish people would trim their replies? Nothing is more obnoxious than a two word "me too" response bolted onto 2000 words of quoted text. Except, perhaps, for these guys who insist on getting the digest version, and then post a reply and leave all the unrelated fluff in there, and of course leave the subject line saying "Re: [MyLUG] MyLUG Digest, Vol 113, Issue 37".

And then there are the "we don't need no damned context" types. Don't you just love when a responder to a long email thread deletes all quoted text and just says "You're absolutely right, that's the way we should do it!" Who is absolutely right? We don't know. What is the way we should do it? We don't know. What was the thought process? We just don't know.

I've actually taken the time to ask no-context posters to please quote enough quoted text that a meaning can be construed. You know what they told me? They told me that the context is in other email in that thread, and that's enough. In other words, they're saying that you should take special pains to remember everything in the threads in which they participate, or else go back through the thread to figure it out. Geez, they really are in love with themselves, I thought it was just a summer thing!

It's pretty simple. Quote enough text to give context to your replies. No more, and no less.

Inappropriate Top-Posting

You like top posting?

You're a fool!
> What did Jeff say to the teacher?
>> Jeff sassed off the teacher.
>>> Why.
>>>> Jeff got expelled.
>>>>> So what happened in school today?

Had you going for a second, didn't I? :-)

This is just one of many examples in which inappropriate top-posting causes confusion.

Notice I said inappropriate top-posting. In an email flurry between two people on a known subject, top-posting may be alright. It might even be essential if it's important to keep all context for legal reasons, and have responses be completely separate for legal reasons.

But on an email discussion list, where threads can get eight responses deep by six different people, top posting is just plain wrong. Top posting hides who said what. It puts things in reverse order, like the example at the beginning of this section. And when top-posting gets mixed up with bottom-posting and/or interleaved posting, all understandability is lost. Bottom posting and interleaved posting coexist perfectly, but throw some top posting in there and all hell breaks loose. Top-posting conflicts with both bottom-posting and interleave-posting. Top-posting plays nice with nobody.

If the question were just top posting or bottom posting, perhaps it could be considered a mere matter of preference, an acquired taste. But factor in that top posting ruins interleaved posting, probably the most accurate and understandable way to have a complex discussion, it's clear that top posting doesn't belong on an email discussion list.

The past couple years have brought a brand new excuse for top-posting: "My smartphone automatically top posts!"

So fine, they can cut and paste. Or if the smartphone can't do that (and how smart is a phone if it can't), they can put a different email client on it. And then there's this: with its slow typing speed, why would a phone be used for email any more complex than "yes, I'll be there too?"

It's this simple: Top-posting on email discussion lists tends to make the flow and context of the discussion inscrutable.

Inappropriate HTML Email

I'm not sure there's ever an appropriate non-spam use for HTML email, but it certainly doesn't belong on email lists or sent to anyone who doesn't know you well. First, it's a security risk to open HTML email. Next, it usually takes extra steps to open an HTML email. Third, some email clients can't even read HTML email. If you really need the formatting HTML can give you, why not make a web page and email a text link to that web page?

Meaning-Stifling Grammar Mistakes

There's a special place in hell for these guys who capitalize nothing and don't use punctuation. Yeah, you know what they mean, or you can figure out what they mean after a couple re-readings, but if you're busy, that's time better spent in other ways. No caps, no punctuation people are just time-suckers.

We all misspell things. Heck, there are probably some misspellings in this document. But some people write three misspellings to a sentence, causing your reading to slow to a crawl as you go back and forth trying to ferret out meaning.

If you're like most busy people today, you get 500 non-spam emails per day, and you don't have the time to read text obfuscated by deliberate and accidental grammar atrocities. Some people just don't understand that.

Non-Use of Filters

Life's too short for conflict. If you don't like someone, filter out their email. Most email clients have filters, and certainly you can use procmail to filter people out (here's how). Personally, I've found my life to be much happier after filtering out people who caused me conflict.

I'm Not On the List, So Please Reply Me Separately

Another guy who really is in love with himself. This guy's time is so important he doesn't have ten minutes to subscribe to the list, but he expects multiple people to take the extra time to remember to copy him on the email? And what this guy's really asking you to do is train one person at a time. You're too busy for that. Do what I do -- even if you know the answer, ignore him.

Discussion Type Mailing Lists Defaulting to Reply to Individual

If the mailing list is to promote discussions, instead of just an announcement list, then typically everyone's ideas feed each other, the sum becomes greater than the whole, and a knowledge chain reaction ensues. Defaulting to "post to sender" is like putting a nuclear reactor's control rods all the way in. The knowledge chain reaction fizzles. Reply to individual makes it necessary for the sender to take special steps to reply to the list -- special steps often forgotten by busy people with 500 emails per day, most of which come from mailing lists that do the right thing and default to reply to list.

Tell me one more time just so I understand, why in the world would one reply to an individual on a discussion type mailing list except about specifics of a job application or unflattering gossip?

Some folks say it should default to the individual sender in order to prevent embarrassing personal posts to everyone. Well, the few times one replies to a discussion list with private information, the person who has been around the block a few times makes a special mental effort to make sure it's not to the list. Most go so far as to also write OFFLIST in the subject. I go farther. If I were to reply individually to a GoLUG post whose subject contained [GolugTech], I'd split it to look like [Go OFFLIST lugTech], so that it won't go into a folder set to reply to list.

Once the "post to individual" fans see they've been proven wrong on the practicality front, they invariably trot out the old "Reply-To" Munging Considered Harmful web essay. This essay mentions RFCs 822 and 1123. But he mentions them just to say email handling is tricky, not that they say anything about changing the original Reply To. What this essay does, over and over again, is say that if you had a really, really good email client like the author's beloved Elm, we could all live happily in a default "reply to individual" universe. And says nothing about the fact that in the practical world, this default is a discussion killer.

And of course there's the more modern “Reply-To” Munging Still Considered HarmfuL. Really. web essay. Here, based on RFC 2822's text, the author concludes that "The IETF has spoken, and if you violate their standard and munge your Reply-To header fields you're just creating problems for everybody." But the IETF's actual words were:
When the "Reply-To:" field is present, it indicates the mailbox(es) to which the author of the message suggests that replies be sent. In the absence of the "Reply-To:" field, replies SHOULD by default be sent to the mailbox(es) specified in the "From:" field unless otherwise specified by the person composing the reply.

The word SHOULD is defined in RFC 2119:
3. SHOULD<indent>This word, or the adjective "RECOMMENDED", mean that there may exist valid reasons in particular circumstances to ignore a particular item, but the full implications must be understood and carefully weighed before choosing a different course.

The word SHOULD means there may exist valid reasons to send the reply other than to the sender. In fact, I can think of no better reason than to facilitate discussion on a discussion list. When ignoring a particular item, the full implications must be understood and carefully weighed. OK, there are thousands of mailing lists defaulting to reply to list, and the world hasn't ended. Some people have accidentally posted publicly when their intent was private, but not that many and I've never seen it to anyone's detrement. So it's just hyperbole to say that when I tell Mailman to send replies to the list, that I'm "violating the IETF's standard."

Bottom line, if you want a good, functioning, discussion list in which folks using a wide variety of email clients can participate, default your list to reply to list.
Read

Summary

Email can skyrocket your career, or torpedo it. The choice is entirely yours, based on your decision whether to communicate clearly and factually, or to criticize, whine and insult. Email is not private. It never has been, it never will. The recipient can send it to someone else. If sent to a mailing list or some other large entity, it's entirely likely your message will be archived and submitted to search engines. The email you write today very well might still be public knowledge 10 years from now.

Steve Litt
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