Series: Mailing List Manners
A few simple suggestions for making email discussion lists more useful to everyone
Article 1 of 2 in series
It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of mailing lists. I both subscribe to and operate a number of lists on many topics, and I spend much of my day communicating professionally and personally in these discussion groups. And yet, I'm troubled by behaviors I see in most listsShow full article
It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of mailing lists. I both subscribe to and operate a number of lists on many topics, and I spend much of my day communicating professionally and personally in these discussion groups.
And yet, I'm troubled by behaviors I see in most lists. Many people pay little attention to spelling, grammar, and the basic composition of their messages, post pointless notes, and bulk up replies by quoting complete originals and appending huge signatures. How you write in email - especially in public places like mailing lists - affects how other people regard you, your opinions, and your knowledge. Think of it this way: if mailing list messages were a reflection of personal hygiene, you don't want to come across to others like you need a shower, clean clothes, and a haircut.
Here then are the main behaviors that I would encourage for all mailing list participants. If you're as bothered by the problems in mailing lists as I am, feel free to refer others to this article for advice. You can link to it permanently at this URL:
Write Carefully -- I realize that I risk sounding like a pedant here, but in cases like this, I don't care. Writing skills in the general Internet populace stink, which means you can make yourself look even more intelligent and thoughtful than you are by writing well. Good writing isn't difficult, and requires only grammatical sentences and proper spelling. You don't need to be a professional writer or be able to make words flow trippingly off the tongue.
You should also follow a few basic rules when writing email:
- Don't use all capital letters for more than a word.
- Insert a blank line between paragraphs.
- Surround URLs with angle brackets to avoid problems at line breaks.
- Don't use text styles (like bold or italic) or text colors in mailing list messages, since many people won't see them and may even see HTML tags instead.
Quote Sparingly -- One of my peeves with mailing lists is that people seldom delete unnecessary quoted text in their replies, with the worst being people who reply to a message in a digest and quote the entire digest. Quoting sparingly does require manual work, since most email programs automatically quote the original message in replies. But failing to edit the original wastes everyone's time and bandwidth.
In some email programs, you can select some text in the original message, press a keyboard shortcut, and have only that text appear quoted in the reply. (Eudora for the Macintosh does this with its Command-Shift-R shortcut.) Other email programs assume that replying with some original text selected means you want to quote only that text.
Especially problematic are email programs that quote an original message by appending it to the bottom of the reply with no quote marks in front of each line. That prevents inline replies, since there's no easy way to differentiate original and new text, so users of those programs tend to leave the entire original hanging off the end of the reply. That's fine in private messages, but in mail destined for a list, it's just sloppy. Unfortunately, the only solution to this problem is to switch to a different email program.
Avoid Junk Messages -- Another complaint about people's behavior on mailing lists revolves around "junk" messages. I'm not talking about spam, since spammers aren't constructive members of a mailing list. Instead, junk messages fall into the following categories:
Unsubscribe messages mistakenly sent by subscribers who didn't read (or locate) the instructions for leaving the list. Every list goes to lengths to simplify the process of signing off, and yet a large number of people still send unsubscribe messages to the list itself. Read and save the welcome message you receive when you subscribe to a list, then refer to it when you want to unsubscribe.
Me-too posts sent by well-meaning list members replying only to convey that they agree with a message or had a similar experience. A Web-based poll is a better way to take votes on a topic.
Welcome messages that appear when someone new joins the list. No one on a mailing list needs to read "Glad to have you on the list!" from everyone; send such messages to the new member in private mail.
Congratulation messages that appear after a member of the list has mentioned some milestone or personal triumph. Again, send these in private email.
The moral of the story is simple: Avoid sending junk messages to a list. They're easy to identify as you type - just ask yourself if the message would be of interest to the majority of the mailing list. If not, that doesn't mean your message is worthless: the original sender might appreciate being welcomed or congratulated via private email.
Write Descriptive Subjects -- When you receive messages from a mailing list, the first thing you see is the subject line. Which of these subject lines would you rather see on a mailing list devoted to, say, tropical fish?
wondering Recommendations for fish that can live with cichlids
Unless your telepathic powers are better than mine, the first subject line tells you nothing. So, the first rule of subject lines is to make them descriptive.
Another problem affects primarily digest readers. They see an interesting message and want to reply, but when they do so, their email program uses the subject line of the digest (Tropical Fish Digest #251) rather than the subject of the message. That leads to messages being sent to the list with useless subject lines, since the title of the digest is rarely descriptive. There's no good solution to this problem, although two mediocre workarounds exist.
Copy the subject line from the message to which you're replying and paste it into your reply's subject line, prefixing it with "Re:". This is effort well spent.
Have the digest sent as a MIME digest and use an email program like Eudora Pro that can separate the digest into individual messages in a mailbox. The problem goes away then, but, for some people, so does the point of receiving the digest version of a list.
Sometimes you want to reply to a message but change the topic of discussion. When you do that, you should change the subject line; if you don't, people following the thread will be confused when your message doesn't match its subject. Some people (and some programs) indicate when they've changed a subject line by appending "(was <the original subject>)" to the new subject. That's acceptable but results in long and unwieldy subject lines that work badly in list archives.
On the other side are people who change the subject lines on every message they send. That's equally problematic, since it prevents list members from reading (or sorting) messages that are related by a shared subject line.
If you create descriptive subjects, maintain the correct subjects if you're a digest reader, and change subjects only when appropriate, you'll be well on your way to being admired as a paragon of list etiquette.
Use Short Signatures -- My final gripe about mailing list postings is that many people have long signatures at the end of their messages. Email signatures are useful, but mailing list signatures should be kept to a minimum. This is especially true for lists that have digests because the signatures can take up a significant portion of the digest. For instance, messages with long signatures sent to the moderated Info-Mac Digest are rejected with a note asking the person to resend with a shorter signature.
Many email programs let you switch between multiple signatures, but you have to remember to do so for each message. There's a trick you can use in Eudora Pro (but not Eudora Light) to switch signatures automatically when you're replying to messages that come from mailing lists. Follow these steps:
In the Signatures window create a shortened signature for use with mailing lists called "Short signature." Your name, affiliation, email address, and URL are all that is essential.
In the Personalities settings panel, create a personality called "Mailing list signature." Fill in the Real Name and Return Address fields, and select the "Send mail whenever sends are done" checkbox. All the other fields can be blank, and the checkboxes related to checking mail should be deselected.
Switch to the Personality Extras settings panel, leave the Stationery pop-up menu set to None, and choose Short signature from the "Signature when not using stationery" pop-up menu. Click OK to save your personality settings.
Open the Filters window. In filters that move messages from mailing lists into specific mailboxes, add a Make Personality action, and from the Personality pop-up menu, choose "Mailing list signature."
You've created a signature for use with mailing lists, connected it with a specific personality that differs from your dominant personality only in the default signature setting, then created a filter that automatically assigns that personality to incoming messages from mailing lists. Now, whenever you reply to a message from a mailing list, Eudora Pro knows to use your mailing list personality and thus your mailing list signature. You'll still have to choose your mailing list signature manually when sending a new message to a list, but all replies will use it automatically.
Ridin' that High Horse -- I freely admit that there's nothing new in this article (well, except maybe the Eudora tip above). These recommendations have been floating around the Internet as long as there has been an Internet. The sad fact is, though, that mailing list manners haven't improved with time.
So why can I complain? Two reasons. First, I think it's important that this topic, old as it is, remains in the public eye. Second, I do the work every day to create a mailing list that tries to conform to all the recommendations above. In TidBITS Talk, I do the following to every message:
Basic editing and spell checking, which is significantly eased by Eudora Pro 4.2's inline spell checker. I also add blank lines between paragraphs, add angle brackets to URLs, and remove styled text.
Eliminate unnecessary original text in replies. This task is quite easy, since wholesale deletions take little time.
Reject junk messages. Most mailing lists aren't moderated, but eliminating junk messages, or even multiple identical answers to the same question, is a major advantage of moderation.
Normalize subject lines. I try to keep similar messages in threads and break new thoughts out into new threads. This work also improves the quality and coherence of our archive database.
Signature pruning. Since I'm already editing messages, it's little extra work to trim signatures to their essentials.
I do all this work because I think it makes for a far better list experience, and highly positive feedback from the members of the TidBITS Talk list confirms this. Another advantage is that this work tends to keep the list volume down, since I'm less likely to post messages that require a lot of work to clean up.
I'm not trying to be smug - I love it when I can post submissions to TidBITS Talk without a lick of work. I also don't expect most other people who run mailing lists to expend this level of effort (though I wouldn't complain if some did). Instead, my goal here is to educate people who participate in mailing lists, since only by improving our list manners will mailing lists continue to become increasingly pleasant and useful.
Article 2 of 2 in series
Response to "Mailing List Manners 101" in TidBITS-480 has been tremendous, so much so that I've decided to add a few additional suggestions for ways people can improve quality of life on mailing listsShow full article
Response to "Mailing List Manners 101" in TidBITS-480 has been tremendous, so much so that I've decided to add a few additional suggestions for ways people can improve quality of life on mailing lists. Keep in mind that of these are all suggestions. We should all be sensitive about encouraging people to abide by them rather than being dogmatic about their adoption; oftentimes, circumstances prevent people from following each suggestion as fully as they would like.
First, I owe an apology to those for whom English is not a native language. Although the readers who chided me about this after last week's article spoke for others, the admonition is well taken. Please do not let my recommendation of grammatical English prevent anyone from participating in mailing lists where English is the standard language. We're all enriched by the participation of people from other countries and cultures, and to restrict that on the basis of grammar is self-defeating. I also encourage everyone to check to see if the sender of a poorly worded message might be struggling with an unfamiliar language - a glance at the sender's email address or signature often identifies people for whom English is difficult.
Second, I should have qualified my statement by noting that adherence to grammatical rules is secondary to providing useful information. Several people commented that if they need technical help, they're not particularly worried about the language in which it's couched.
That said, there were a few additional recommendations that bear noting. Also, for those of you who asked for a concise summary of all these recommendations, check the end of this article for a tidbit you can clip and send to others.
Avoid File Attachments -- We considered discussing file attachments last week but decided not to do so because acceptable behavior varies between lists and because a number of attachments are sent without the user realizing.
In general, unless a list actively encourages the use of attachments to messages, you shouldn't send them. Most mailing lists consist of people using a variety of email programs under different operating systems. That's even true for a list devoted to a Macintosh-only program like HyperCard, for instance, since people often read email at work, where they may use a Unix machine or Windows box instead of the Mac they use at home. Then there are Web-based email clients, which may not be able to deal with attachments at all. Thus, it's likely that any attachment won't be readable by a significant percentage of people on the list. If you're thinking about attaching a file that contains primarily text, instead copy the file's content into the body of the message.
Attachments are also a concern because many people aren't careful about the size of attached files. Attaching a 1 MB file to a message may be as easy as attaching a 10K file, but that 1 MB file may cause significant problems for the mailing list program itself (consider the disk space implications if the program created a separate file for each recipient of a 600 person list - 600 MB of data) and for individual recipients on the end of slow connections.
Another problem with attachments is that many people send them without realizing that they've done so. Now that many email programs support inline graphics, people copy images into their messages without realizing that those images are in fact sent as attachments. Similarly, users of Netscape Communicator may find themselves sending VCard attachments without noticing. In Netscape Communicator, open the Preferences dialog box, switch to the Identity panel, and deselect "Attach my personal card to messages (as a VCard)" to avoid sending VCards with every message. Since most people still use email programs that don't understand VCards, VCard attachments tend to confuse or annoy recipients. Finally, the Microsoft Exchange email server can generate WINMAIL.DAT attachments (which contain information that Microsoft email clients understand but which aren't Internet standards) with every message, but it can also be configured to restrict those attachments to destinations known to be running Exchange as well. If you're receiving WINMAIL.DAT files, ask the sender to ask their email administrator to look into the Exchange configuration.
There are of course cases where attachments are perfectly acceptable. For instance, on the small mailing lists we run for our families, the occasional family picture isn't usually a problem. And a mailing list run for a publication submissions panel may want everything sent as attachments.
Don't Send HTML Mail -- I commented in the previous article that you should avoid using text styles or colors in messages for mailing lists because there's no telling what people will see. This point deserves some expansion, because it can be more problematic than I implied.
Many email programs, including such popular ones as Emailer, can't render HTML-formatted messages, and even as HTML support improves, there will be plenty of people who won't upgrade or who prefer to use programs that will never support HTML formatting. As with attachments, then, there will be numerous people on almost any mailing list who won't be able to read your message as you intended. (Eudora Pro offers the option of sending both styled and plain text to avoid this problem.) Worse, depending on how you've sent the message and on the email programs of the recipients, they may see the straight HTML markup. And if someone replies to the HTML formatted message, the quoting can render the message even more unreadable.
Some mailing lists explicitly forbid the use of HTML formatted messages for this reason, and even if that's not specifically true of the lists you frequent, it's best to avoid sending messages with text styles to mailing lists.
Some email programs generate HTML formatting by default, so you may have to change settings to prevent it. For the programs listed below, I've identified the location of the formatting controls. Note that I'm using the arrow (->) as a shorthand notation indicating navigation, so the first item below would expand to: "From the Special menu, choose Settings, then scroll down to the Styled Text settings panel."
- Eudora Pro (Mac): Special -> Settings -> Styled Text
- Eudora Pro (Windows): Tools -> Options -> Styled Text
- Netscape Communicator (Mac/Windows): Edit -> Preferences -> Mail & Newsgroups -> Formatting
- Outlook Express (Mac): Edit -> Preferences -> Message Composition
- Outlook Express (Windows): Tools -> Options -> Send
Watch Recipients -- Mailing lists that lack explicit Reply-To headers often accidentally encourage another behavior which can prove annoying. If there's no Reply-To header, most email programs address replies to the original sender of the message. That's fine. However, if the person replying wants the reply to go to the list, the easiest way to include the list address is often to perform a Reply To All action, which replies to both the original sender and the list. Replying to all has the desired effect of making sure the reply goes back to the list, but it has the side effect of sending two copies to the original sender (one directly, one via the list).
Obviously, this isn't a major gaffe, but it's confusing to the person who receives the duplicate messages. I'm never quite sure whether the person meant the reply to be private or public, which can affect how I continue the conversation. Worse, I may reply in one fashion after seeing the direct message, then realize that was a bad idea when a second copy arrives later by way of the list.
My recommendation is to avoid sending messages to both individuals and lists if it means the individual will receive multiple copies. There may be exceptions to this general rule, if, for instance, the direct message is likely to arrive more quickly or if there's a chance that a list moderator will reject the message.
Respect Other People's News -- This is a somewhat odd suggestion, but I think it's important. If you learn information concerning another person that might be of interest to a mailing list, respect that person's right to post their news when and if they see fit. You may wish to query them in private email to check on their plans, but it can range from rude to distressing to break important news for someone else. For instance, if you found out a friend was pregnant and broke the news for her on a list, you're both stealing her thunder and potentially creating an awkward situation if she didn't wish to let everyone know. Worse, imagine the nightmare that could result (this has happened) if a well-intentioned person posted a short note about a close friend dying to a public mailing list. List members' confusion, grief, and desire for details could make it even harder on the people close to the deceased trying to handle the logistics of informing friends and relatives.
A Concise Summary -- For those of you who asked for a short summation you could send to mailing lists to remind people of these recommendations, feel free to use the following in its entirety, perhaps with a short introduction explaining why you're sending it.
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There are a number of things we can do to improve the quality of mailing lists for the benefit of all. Most of these recommendations are simple and require little extra work. If you'd like to read a more detailed rationale for these suggestions, check out the Mailing List Manners 101 and 102 articles published by TidBITS at:
Email Program Settings Suggestions:
- Turn off features (like VCards) that create attachments.
- Avoid sending HTML-formatted messages to lists.
- Send replies either to the sender or the list, but not both.
- Make sure the time is set properly on your computer.
Writing and Layout Suggestions:
- Don't use all capital letters for more than a word or two.
- Insert blank lines between paragraphs.
- Include full URL schemes, as in <http://www.tidbits.com/>.
- Surround URLs with angle brackets.
- Try to use proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
Message Content Suggestions:
- Never send unsubscribe commands to the list.
- Create and maintain descriptive subject lines.
- Quote original text sparingly in your replies.
- Don't include email attachments unless explicitly allowed.
- Use a short signature containing only essential data.
- Send welcome or congratulation messages via private email.
- Respect other people's news.
- Civility is always worthwhile.
Thanks for helping to keep mailing lists useful and pleasant places!
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More Suggestions and Caveats -- Space still prevents me from covering every possible suggestion for these articles, but a number more have appeared in the related thread in TidBITS Talk. It also contains some alternate viewpoints, along with explanations of why some email programs may force poor list manners.<http://db.tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?tlkthrd=670>