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Quoting: Top Posting

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In the last article, I discussed bottom posting, or more precisely interleaved posting, which is the traditional time-honored standard for the formatting of quoted materials and replies when responding to electronic messages (including e-mail, newsgroups, forums, etc.). I alluded to flame wars that occur on newsgroups and mailing lists over the matter of reply formatting. It takes two sides to have a war, so here is a description of the formatting style of the other side, usually known as "top-posters". Although my loyalties are with the traditional standards, and hence the bottom-posters, I will try to be fair to the other side too and point out the areas in which they have a logical case for their style.

An interesting phenomenon in the perennial top-vs-bottom debates is that people often turn up, on both sides of the debate, saying "I've been using [e-mail / newsgroups / lists / forums] for [10 / 15 / 20] years, and until very recently, everybody [top / bottom] posted... nobody had even heard of [bottom / top] posting!" And they're probably not lying or mistaken, either... until the mid '90s, electronic communications were highly Balkanized, without one unified network that everybody used. Over in one corner were the academics on ARPAnet (the forerunner of the Internet), Bitnet, CSnet, and other networks with only clumsy, creaky interconnections, as well as campus networks within each university. Elsewhere, some big corporations had internal e-mail and messaging systems on their mainframes and LANs. Unix buffs were setting up UUCP e-mail and Usenet newsgroups independently of everything else, and PC hobbyists had their dialup bulletin board systems (BBSs), some of which interchanged e-mail and "Echomail" (discussion boards) via FidoNet. And the various proprietary commercial online services like CompuServe and AOL went their own way. Naturally, these different forms of e-mail and message boards developed distinct standards and cultures. The expansion and mainstreaming of the Internet brought lots of formerly separate communities together, producing the culture clashes you see now, where many people can legitimately say that various mutually-conflicting things are "the way we've always done it." (Incidentally, I looked back at some printouts I saved of e-mail I sent and received via the campus network during my mid-80s college days, and found that, in that instance, it was very rare to quote anything at all from the message you were replying to; usually, each message stood completely alone, so "top vs. bottom posting" wasn't even an issue.)

In addition to the terminology mentioned in the last article ("Top Posting", "Bottom Quoting", etc.), the style of top posting is sometimes referred to as "TOFU". In this context, it doesn't refer to the soybean-based food; rather, it originated on German newsgroups as an acronym for a phrase (Text Oben, Fullquote Unten) which can be translated into English (fortuitously preserving the acronym) as "Text Over, Fullquote Under". Thus, it's a synonym for top posting, and it's generally used by opponents of the practice trying to cast ridicule on those who do it.

The Style of Top Posting

Top posting comes in several variations depending on how the quoted material is set off from the new material, and whether it is quoted in its entirety or trimmed down. The "purest" form of top posting consists of the quoted message being presented in its entirety (including signatures, disclaimers, and all previous messages that were quoted in turn by the quoted message) after the new message (this style is known as "top posting with fullquote"). While bottom-posted messages generally use angle brackets to the left of quoted material, this is commonly omitted in "pure" top postings, where a separator line serves the function of indicating the boundary between new and old material. If the top-posting is done with consistent style by all participants in a sequence of messages, a complete history is maintained. Here's how it looks:

Date: Sat, 29 Mar 2003 21:57:27 -0500
From: "Jack Jackson" <jack@example.net>
To: "John Johnson" <john@example.org>
Subject: Re: A question

To catch the chicken, of course!

== Jack ==
http://www.example.net/house.that.jack.built/

----- Original Message -----

Date: Sat, 29 Mar 2003 20:44:23 -0500
From: "John Johnson" <john@example.org>
To: "Jack Jackson" <jack@example.net>
Subject: Re: A question

I give up... why?

{{{ John }}}
Filling the Internet with pointless chatter since 1997

----- Original Message -----

Date: Sat, 29 Mar 2003 20:24:11 -0500
From: "Jack Jackson" <jack@example.net>
To: "John Johnson" <john@example.org>
Subject: Re: A question

That's easy... To get to the other side!

But why did the coyote cross the road?

== Jack ==
http://www.example.net/house.that.jack.built/

----- Original Message -----

Date: Sat, 29 Mar 2003 19:31:42 -0500
From: "John Johnson" <john@example.org>
To: "Jack Jackson" <jack@example.net>
Subject: A question

Why did the chicken cross the road?

{{{ John }}}
Filling the Internet with pointless chatter since 1997

In this style, signature blocks are placed beneath the new message but above the quoted material, so that each signature is with its associated message. Abbreviated message headers are included above each quoted message.

Variant top posting formats include formats with angle brackets preceding quoted material, with a single attribution line preceding the quote instead of a multi-line header, and with some parts of the quoted message trimmed (e.g., signatures and disclaimers) instead of it being quoted in its entirety. These variants basically use some of the techniques of bottom-posting (perhaps because the user is using a mail client designed by people who favor bottom posting themselves, and thus set up its style conventions to work best with it), but still put the new message on top instead of below or interleaved. These styles, in general, look more ugly and awkward, and are harder to follow, than either top or bottom posting in their more pure forms.

Most awkward of all is when a writer starts out doing interleaved replies in the bottom posting style, but then when he/she reaches the end of the part he/she wishes to reply to, he/she (hmmm... nonsexist writing can also get awkward...) leaves the remainder of the message (signatures, ads, disclaimers, and earlier quotes included) trailing off at the end instead of trimming it.

No, I take that back... the most awkward format of all is when the writer does a carefully-trimmed quote with interleaved replies... then follows it all with a fullquote of the original message, thus resulting in the replied-to portions being quoted twice. This is the style of wishy-washy types who can't decide whether to top-post or bottom-post, so they do both at once.

And I've got to take it back yet again... leave it to people out there to come up with a yet-sillier reply format: Double-Top-Posting! This consists of both a trimmed contextual quote and a fullquote... both of which are beneath the reply! (As you can see, the linked example here also has some problems with line length.) And I've seen the inverse, Double-Bottom-Posting, as well... two copies of the quoted material (one full and one trimmed) with the reply beneath it all. People never stop coming up with silly quoting formats.

When Does Top Posting Make Sense?

I kind of hate to say it, as a strong supporter of the traditional netiquette of bottom-posting, but the people on the other side do have some points to make too. In fact, the typical nature and general needs of business email vs. those of "traditional geek" uses of email/newsgroups/etc., have enough differences that it's entirely natural that the two very different "standards" as to how quoting should be done in replies would develop... at first as practical adaptations to the perceived needs, but eventually (out of a tendency in human nature) turned into strongly-held cultural values that can be the subject of religious wars.

In contrast to the characteristics of much "geek" correspondence noted in the article on bottom posting, much business correspondence has these different characteristics:

  • A message thread has a single directed goal, like resolving a customer's techncial support problem; its purpose is not to engage in philosophical debate.

  • Threads tend to be fairly linear in nature, as the "ball" is passed to different "players" to be dealt with in order -- the customer writes to the tech support rep, who writes back to suggest a solution; the customer replies that the proposed solution didn't work, and then the rep passes the message on to a second-level tech who might be able to provide a workable solution. Sometimes it might get bounced around to a number of people before it's finally resolved, but the ball is usually in one person's court at any given time. Thus, the thread goes in a straight line without branches and digressions, and when it's dropped in a new guy's lap it's useful to provide him with the complete history so far.

  • There's a much greater uniformity of mail clients, as there tends to be a "corporate standard" (unfortunately, usually MS-Outhouse... er, I mean Outlook). Thus, there's less "mangling" of thread history even when it's attached in a big mass every time.

This is an environment where the "top posting" style was a natural development (whether or not its introduction was actually an evil Microsoft conspiracy -- actually, I think it originated in corporate LAN email systems predating the commercial Internet). It's not perfect (see some problems noted below), but it gets the job done, while the alternative style of carefully-trimmed quotes would result in the "newbie" who receives a forwarded copy of a late message in the thread having no access to most of its history.

Unfortunately, styles that make some sense in their original context can cause a big mess when taken elsewhere, but people (myself included) who "grew up" in one style don't like changing even when the context shifts, so you get the inevitable culture clashes with no obvious resolution.

Some Problems with Top Posting

The final message in a top-posted series carries with it a full history of the message sequence, which can be useful at times. Unfortunately, that history is backwards. Trying to read such a history in the natural top-to-bottom way is reminiscent of watching one of the "artsy" films or TV shows that proceed in reverse order, each scene preceding the last one chronologically. Memento is a very good movie done in this manner. Several TV series, including Seinfeld and E.R., have done "backward" episodes. These things can be very cleverly done, and are an interesting change of pace from the usual forward-progressing storylines, but they are also very challenging to try to make sense of. A typical e-mail message thread most likely is not written in as clever and engaging a manner as these productions.

As an interesting aside, the July/August 2004 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact has an article giving the history of that magazine's letter column, "Brass Tacks", which goes back to the founding of the magazine (as Astounding Stories) in 1930. Apparently, the early editors didn't like the concept of replying to letter-writers beneath their letters, despite the logic and usefulness of this approach, because it makes the editor seem to be getting "the last word", which they thought was rude to the reader. Most of the time they just refrained from replying to the letters at all (which was a bit awkward when the letter was clearly asking a question of the editor), but sometimes they put their reply in the headline above the letter. Thus, their practice represents what is perhaps the earliest recorded instance of top posting. This was frequently objected to by readers as illogical, confusing, and not conducive to proper answering of reader questions, and finally in the 1950s they changed their style to the more common and reasonable one of replying beneath the letter when a reply is appropriate.

There's also the problem that if a mail server appends material to the end of all messages that pass through it (such as ads or disclaimers), it always ends up at the very end of the message, after all quoted material, so it doesn't accompany the actual new message it's part of. After several rounds of replies through such a server, a whole heap of repetitive cruft is at the very end of the message if it's not trimmed. This wastes bandwidth and disk space, and makes the message format less aesthetically pleasing (to viewers who scroll all the way to the bottom), without serving any useful purpose. In corporate environments, ads usually aren't appended to messages (although in tech-support and customer-service contexts, some of the messages may be from customers using free mail services that do append ads), but disclaimers often are.

[Example Screenshot]

The above screenshot shows just one part of the long, useless trailer in a mailing-list message, which actually had several more repetitions of the list instructions and Yahoo ads, all in a row. Here, the ads show up uselessly as "ADVERTISEMENT" in this text-mode version of the message; that was probably the ALT text in the graphical ad in an HTML-format message that was quoted. In general, if the mail programs used by different participants in a message thread convert the format between text and HTML and back again, or attempt to do re-word-wrapping of the text, or switch between different character encodings, this can result in parts of the quoted material turning into an awful mess. This has much less opportunity to happen in bottom-posted messages where the quotes are carefully trimmed, instead of being left in their entirety to suffer the indignity of repeated passes through different mail formatting agents until they're pounded into dust. Ads appended to messages have a particular tendency to degenerate into horrendous messes because they often contain graphics, hyperlinks, and other complex code. (The Ads article shows a screenshot of an even messier example than the one above.)

Note too that the above message was read in the digest version of a mailing list; this means that the reader had to scroll through all of the quoted material to get to the next message in the digest, since a digest consists of a number of messages presented one after another. This is a big reason why top posting and full quoting are disliked so intensely on public mailing lists. I've even seen messages on mailing lists which fullquoted an entire digest when a message in the digest was being replied to. This is unbelievable; those who read a mailing list in digest form should be well aware of the inconvenience of getting through excessive quotage, so it takes a particularly intense degree of perversity for one of them to engage in such an extreme form of it themselves; however, on one mailing list, somebody quoted back entire digests multiple times, even sometimes quoting back a digest that included one of her own earlier quoted-back digests. And people flamed me for being nitpicky when I complained about it. Geez!

Bad Examples Department: This archived message serves as a case study of how top-posting with full-quoting doesn't mix well with digest-form mailing lists. Somebody replied to a list digest with a short information request, quoting back the entire digest. Somebody else replied to that message with a similarly short response, once again quoting back the whole digest along with the question being replied to. The Yahoo Groups footer, Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to http://docs.yahoo.com/info/terms/, appears ten times in this message, via various levels of quoting and requoting. Some irony is provided by the fact that one of the messages in that digest was a plea for list members to trim their quotes to avoid message bloat, a plea that apparently fell on deaf ears. And the whole mess is preserved for posterity in the public list archives.

Even in a business environment, there are some instances where bottom posting (or, actually, interleaved posting) actually makes a good deal of sense, as described in the last article. Hence, it's a good idea to be familiar with the technique, even when most of your correspondence fits in the type best suited to top posting, so that you can switch to the other way where it makes sense, and also so you can recognize and properly understand any replies you may receive from bottom-posters. (Some "business types" have such a narrow and limited experience with the varying styles of e-mail that they have trouble understanding an interleaved response when they receive one, since that style is so alien to them.) If for no other reason, you might eventually wish to post to a newsgroup or write a message on a public discussion mailing list, and in those contexts bottom posting is almost always the preferred format; you're likely to get seriously "flamed" if you top-post there.

As a final note, even the subset of business-related correspondence where top posting is most likely to be useful -- messages dealing with an attempt to resolve a technical support or customer service issue -- would even better be served by a Web-based incident tracking system, accessible to workers involved in resolving such issues via the company intranet, and containing the complete history of each support issue in an easily searchable and sortable form. Even better is if the customers, too, can log into a secured site and review their own past correspondence with the company. If all involved persons have access to such a system, the need for excessive quoting in the messages themselves evaporates.

The Practice of Top Posting

If you're going to top-post, you should configure your mail program to work well with this, setting the formatting to suit the style. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft's mail programs do this pretty well (the hard thing is coaxing a good format for bottom posting out of those programs). Some other mail programs, whose authors favor bottom posting, end up doing top posting in a style that doesn't quite suit it.

There was a big discussion with regard to the Mozilla browser's mail client and its (former) failure to easily support top posting; there's an option to start your reply above the quoted material, but signature lines were placed at the bottom of the message instead of above the quoted stuff. This is pretty much the inverse of the MS Outlook behavior, where signatures are placed above the quote and there doesn't seem to be any way to make it do otherwise, making that program hostile to bottom-posters. A number of people said that they have to cut-and-paste their signature every time they write a reply in Mozilla (apparently, changing their style to bottom posting is out of the question for them), and they wished Mozilla would put the signatures where they want them, but this was resisted by old-guard geeks who'd prefer that this standards-compliant browser and mail client not encourage such "bad behavior". The top posters finally got their wish in late 2003, as Mozilla (and the standalone Thunderbird mail client) added a "Put signature above quoted material" option.

Besides the "holy-war" aspect, the Mozilla developers did have a point where standards compliance was concerned; the traditional signature block, including the "-- " (dash, dash, space) separator line before it, is supposed to be at the very end of the message (since some mail clients will strip everything after the separator from quoted material in a reply). If a signature with separator is placed above quoted material, it may prevent the recipient from quoting back any portion of the earlier quoted material. Hence, when top posting with a signature above the quote, you shouldn't use the "traditional" separator line (for instance, you can leave out the trailing space to prevent the line from being considered a separator). Fortuitously, though probably by accident, MS Outlook strips all trailing spaces, including in signature separator lines, so Outlook top-posters won't wind up with separators before their signature even if they try to put it in. You may have noticed that in my above sample top-posted message thread the participants used nonstandard signature blocks; this was done on purpose. The Mozilla developers did the right thing when they added top-posted signatures as an option -- when you choose this option, no separator is added.

Top-Posting in Other Media

The habit of top-posting turns up in other media besides e-mail, too. Web forum postings, where the forum software offers the ability to quote previous messages, sometimes get posted in a "top-posted" way, even though the messages are generally all shown on one page (much like a digest-format mailing list archive) so there is no particular point to a fullquote (the original message is right there above the new one anyway); if any quoting is needed at all it is a brief contextual snippet which makes more sense above the reply.

Some people are even "top-posting" replies to tweets in Twitter:

DebbieGibson Debbie Gibson
A big bunch of onion rings basically! Shared it ! Loved it! RT @opvets81: @DebbieGibson what's the bloomin onion?
[source]

The 140-character limit inhibits the excesses of fullquoting, however.

Links

Next: Replies aren't the only instance in which you may wish to include content from one message in another; there's also forwarding. Learn the ins and outs of this activity.

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This page was first created 13 Apr 2003, and was last modified 24 Aug 2011.
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