Pointless Battles For Geeks

Geeks invented the internet. And for many years it was inhabited solely by geeks and academics. Over those years a number of unwritten rules arose which controlled the way people used the internet. The unwritten rules were passed on to newcomers who saw the wisdom of the rules and continued to follow them. Everyone followed the rules and all was well with the world.

But in the mid-90s the rest of the world discovered the internet and suddenly everything changed. The companies who were providing internet access to the public had no interest in the rules so the new users knew nothing of the rules and continuously broke them. Some companies (and I’m looking at you here, Microsoft) produced internet software that
encouraged users to break the rules.

This made the original internet users very sad. Many of them fought back against this abuse of what they saw as their system. They would try to enforce the rules but, of course, they had no power to do so and generally failed. Which made them even more sad.

You can’t beat that weight of numbers. The vast majority of internet users now see the (eminently sensible in my view) old internet rules as irrelevant to them. Most people that you meet on the internet have no knowledge of the rules. There’s only a tiny minority of people who still care. But many of that tiny minority still try to fight the barbarian hordes and impose their old rules.

So I think it’s time to give up. Much as I support the old rules, I think it’s pointless to go on fighting this battle. It’s a battle that the geeks can never win.

Here are three examples of rules that I think it’s time to abandon. These particular examples are all about email.

1/ Top Posting

Most of the time email is a conversation. I send a message to you and you send me a reply. I might then reply to your reply, clarifying some points and asking some more questions. And so we go on.

The sensible way to carry on a conversation like this is to format it so that it reads like a conversation – i.e. a question followed by its answer and then another question followed by another answer.

Geeks know this. Their email conversations are really easy to read. Everything is in the right order and it all makes sense. Non-geeks just dump everything they have to say at the top of the email. This means that firstly if you want to review everything that has been said then
you need to read from the bottom up and secondly it’s often really hard to know which parts of the reply refer to which parts of the original mail.

Life would be so much easier if everyone followed the geek way of doing things. But it’s never going to happen. There are still people holding out against this in geek communities, but most of the world top-posts all of its replies.

And that’s not going to change. Accept it. Deal with it. Move on.

2/ HTML Email

The same email software that initially encouraged top-posting also introduced the wonders of HTML mail (sometimes know as “rich text” mail) to the world. No longer would your mail be constrained to boring old plain text – now you can change fonts and colours, and include

Of course, it doesn’t really work like that. No two email programmes work the same way and an email that looks great in Outlook might look like a complete mess in Thunderbird (or, as is more likely, on your mobile phone email application). As a result, people who design HTML email (and people apparently make a living doing just that!) have to ignore everything we’ve learned about HTML design in the last ten years and design to the lowest common denominator. Table-based HTML design isn’t dead; it’s been relegated to HTML email.

And then there’s the problem with viruses and phishing. The more complex an HTML email can be, the higher the chance that someone can use it for nefarious purposes. The net result of that scare is that many email programmes now won’t show external images unless specifically requested to by the users. Which means that your carefully designed marketing
message will actually end up looking a bit shit to many of your target audience.

But much as you might hate it (and if you’re sane you will), HTML email isn’t going to go away. Simply set your email application to display the plain text version of the email and let the idiots enjoy the pretty colours and viruses. If someone sends you an email that doesn’t have a plain text version then just ignore it. They weren’t worth talking to anyway.

HTML email is a fact of life. Ignore it. Move on.

3/ Reply-To On Mailing Lists

If someone sends a message to a mailing list and you reply using the “reply” button then your reply should just go to the person who wrote the original mail. That’s just common sense. It you want to reply to everyone on the mailing list then you should choose “reply all” or (in
better email applications) “reply to list”.

But somewhere over the last ten years or so, people stopped understanding that and mailing
list owners started to configure their mailing list software so that replying to a mailing list mail sent a mail to the whole list. That’s obviously completely broken behaviour and there aren’t many weeks that pass when I don’t see a geek being caught out by a broken mailing list
and sending what should have been a private mail to the whole list.

Geeks expect one behaviour. Non-geeks expect a different one. Once again the non-geeks will win through sheer weight of numbers. I used to be adamant about this and would configure any mailing list I ran so that replies would go to the sender. But so many people don’t understand that, so I have now capitulated and run most of mail mailing lists so
that a reply goes to the whole list. It’s broken and wrong, but it leads to fewer problems in the long run.

You might think that this is one area where geeks could still have their own way within
their own communities. Surely geeks could still run their own geek mailing list according to the old traditions. Well, some lists are still run like that but it seems that the inability to understand the semantics of the “reply” button event infects geeks. Often you’ll see a
mailing list that is configured correctly gets complaints about it being “broken” and the list owner changes the behaviour.

So now, in the majority of cases, a reply to a mailing list mail will go to the list. That’s not going to change. It’s not worth fighting about. Deal with it.

So, yes, the barbarians are at the gate. The lunatics have taken over the asylum. Good ideas have been crushed by the number of people who don’t understand them. But there’s no point in complaining about it. You just have to accept it and move on.

Now I’d better stop before I start ranting about Betamax.


  1. Those issues are much more complex then you describe them here. Take topposting – gmail now fixed that for me by hiding the repeated text – but when reading in a less sophisticated reader I really hated all the repetitions in the geeky email conversations. I would rather directly read what someone has to say – then wade through the history of the conversation to read that one new sentence. The repetitions of the geeky way are especially tedious when reading whole email threads at once (what happens more commonly as the volume of communication grows). Sure sometimes it makes sense to put the reaction so close to the original words – but it is not a universal rule. I have also the feeling that the interleaved conversation is convenient for nit picking and fighting with words – and that the top-posting is more ‘peaceful’.

    In short the choice of the convention is not something with obvious answers so please don’t frame the other party as lunatics and barbarians.

  2. What you’re describing with excess repetition is something that I didn’t really touch on in my post – that of trimming posts.

    When replying to a mail in the “geek manner” you should trim anything in the original mail which isn’t necessary to give context to your reply. It’s true, unfortunately, that trimming is a bit of a dying art – even in the geek community.

    As for calling people “lunatics and barbarians”, this blog should always be read assuming that I’m not entirely serious. I often overstate my case for comic effect.

  3. You can treat top-posting as a kind of extreme trimming with a left-over refference for those that did not get the previous email :) This is a good choice for the bulk of conversations that we read whole threads at once or for those really personal that we remember everything previously written by heart.

    There is also an alternative to verbose quoting – it is paraphrasing the words so that they can be seamlesly weaved into the line of thought. The advantage is a more ‘smooth’ reading experience. When I think about situations where quoting is better choice then paraphrasing – then the only obvious one I see is a ‘word fight’ when we need to prove that we did not change the meaning of what our opponent wrote. It is also less work – of course.

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