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Mailing List Manners 102

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 <>.
  • 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.


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