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?
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.