Tuesday 29 September 2009

Why Bottom Posting Sucks

Throughout the years, posting styles in email lists and in forums have been a point of contention. Essentially, there are three types of posting styles.

  1. Inline posting. In this style, the responder answers queries or provides insight throughout the document.
  2. Top posting. The responder writes his thoughts at the top of the previous discussion. This particular method has long been frowned upon because the dialog is out of order.
  3. Bottom posting. The responder writes at the very bottom of the discussion, leaving the previous dialog intact and creates a sequential order for the discussion.

At first glance, both inline and bottom posting make sense. The logic of each is maintained. In the first case you have essentially an actual dialog. He writes, she responds, the conversation goes back and forth. In bottom-posting, you have all the sequential context of the dialog available.

There is also the issue of what gets clipped out, or doesn’t. But let’s save that rant for another day. The issues with these styles have only been based on preference within the group or organization, and it’s daunting to think how much people argue about something so seemingly simple.

Because I personally find inline posting to make sense, as I am a verbal person and think in dialog anyway, let’s set that one aside. It’s fairly neutral overall. Most people won’t freak out if you use inline posting. Although I’m sure there are some of you out there!

Top-posting puts the sequence out of order. So why am I advocating it over bottom-posting? There are several reasons, all of which have their own logic. First, we’re becoming extremely used to backward sequencing. Blogs do this automatically. Twitter does too. Think of any social network and the way your posts are ordered. They are essentially top-posted.

Not only are we becoming accustomed to this behavior and perhaps prefer it in certain situations, but a second point also reigns true. We have many tools now so as to retrieve and save threads. IMAP, for one. Gmail provides archives. All current, popular mail clients allow some sort of filtering and thread views.

A third and important reason bottom-posting needs to die a fast death is the increasing access of email on small devices. It becomes absolutely senseless to have an entire novel sent when the message is simply “yup, I’m on the task” or what have you.

The final reason that bottom-posting sucks is that long emails that require a user to scroll through what is sometimes pages and pages of information is physically damaging and actually very difficult to do for those of us whose wrists and fingers tire easily. If someone with mobility impairments has to scroll through so much data just to get to “yup, I’m on the task” it just becomes an insult to that user, who suffers through the inconvenience to get to the message.

Two words: Not Accessible.

If there is any reason for everyone to abandon bottom-posting at this point in our evolution, I have to say it’s that alone. And if you’re young and strong and able-bodied and think I’m nuts, that’s okay. I’m probably older than your mother and sticking around to hear you grow up and say “Mom, you were right” will be my goal!

Bottom posting sucks. Let’s abolish it now and get on with the day.

Filed under:   general
Posted by:   Molly | 17:24 | Comments (61)

Comments (61)

  1. Now if we could just abolish the idea that inline posting is the only style that is acceptable. (Inline is great for some exchanges – but it loses all context in the overall conversation.)

  2. Seems interesting that in some ways Twitter, Facebook and other services are starting to change our view of top posting…

    • Well, it’s not entirely true though. Facebook uses top posting for new messages on the News feed, but comments to each news item is bottom posted.

  3. Hurray! I’m glad somebody finally said this. …

    It’s all a failure of email clients. No one has bothered to write an actually good one, which would display new material (in a semantically marked-up way), with options to toggle display of reply-context on & off, etc. (Apparently Gmail has some of these features, but I haven’t delved into it for a while. Weird, I know…

    • I agree that email clients could improve features. All software can. But the source of this problem has always been people, truly. It goes far back in history, pre-web, back to the days of usenet, BBSs, and of course the classic email list.

  4. So how do you feel about re-sorting comment streams (such as this one), so that the most recent contribution can be found at the top?

  5. If ‘yup I’m on the task’ is the only thing you need to say, and the other party does not need to know what task I’m on about[1], then reply without adding the original at all.

    But if my client sends an email equivalent of 2 A4s, and I need to reply to particular parts of his email, top posting will kill me and him both. Today’s true life example: client sends email with about 3 different points to respond to. I respond to each one, below each point, inline.
    His top posted reply: “Yes, I think that’s a good idea.” I had to ask which part of my words that referred to, to be sure. It wouldn’t be the first time misunderstanding happens like that.

    Also, from experience: people who top post very often have not read the entire email at all.

    Accessibility: us sighted people can glance over an email. A blind person can not, and will have to first read the answer, without knowing what the question was. Not fair.

    If anything, I’d say that not top posting, but rigorous snipping is in order. Snipping of every single syllable that is not necessary to understand the inline or bottom-posted answer below it. That way you have the advantage of reading from top to bottom [2], and not the disadvantage of having to scroll through copious amounts of irrelevant text.

    As for small devices: even worse having to scroll down and up and down and up again to read the context. Good snippage will limit the scrolling for reading top to bottom with inline replies. (yes, speaking from experience.)

    [1] I may think “the other party will remember what I wrote, as it’s only 20 minutes ago”, but I don’t know that. A typical busy day gets me various emails that will need some context for me to instantly know what they are about.
    [2] No, we are not getting accustomed to reverse reading. I read every blog post from top to bottom, and it’s hardly ever a part two to an earlier blogpost. Even comments on blogposts are in chronological order, not reversed chronological order.

    My 2 currency units.

    (and if this was just a troll, you’re good! ;-))

    • Els comment just perfectly reflects my thoughts about posting order. There’s no holy grail about order, cause sometimes you would be doomed with top posting or break you fingers while scrolling down.

      The problem for me is that many people don’t bother trimming quoted text. And that’s is a real pain, not a posting order

  6. Word up! Bottom posting is the pits…when you are engaged in a conversation. In newsletter digests, bottom posting makes sense. When I receive a digest from a group, I would want to be able to read from the top down. In an e-mail conversation, however, I am most likely already privy to what was already said.
    Essentially, I expect inline when complex questions are to be addressed. I expect top-posting when receiving a simple response. Bottom-posting just makes me use the scroll wheel, which causes my arthritis to flare up.

  7. in whichever order you prefer
    I’m sure that what I have to say will make sense
    read from the bottom up

  8. “It becomes absolutely senseless to have an entire novel sent when the message is simply โ€œyup, Iโ€™m on the taskโ€ or what have you.”

    Anyone who replies with any of the previous text in this case should be scolded.
    Of course it might be because the subject line wasn’t clear enough to make a simple response work.

    Now if you want to rant about bottom posting…please force all mail signatures to fit in less than 140 characters, and no “fun” images in your mail that exceed 140 bytes


  9. “Bottom-posting just makes me use the scroll wheel, which causes my arthritis to flare up.”

    Us Mac folks can always just option-click the scrollbar to get to the bottom of the message ๐Ÿ˜‰


  10. Bottom posting (or inline, which is nothing more than an interweaved version of bottom posting, potentially with some pruning) aims to reply within a context. If the person you reply to doesn’t need context, don’t quote.

    Meanwhile, top-posting is utterly useless: it doesn’t give you the context of the reply (you have to scroll down for it), it makes a mess out of everything (because top-posters are going to reply to bottom-posters munging everything senselessly) and because of “out of view, out of mind”, top-posted mails are never pruned yielding *megabytes* of useless text going back and forth over the wire (source: the latest chain mail to have crossed your mailbox).

    Fuck top posting. Bottom posting has issues, but top posting is a scourge, a blight upon mankind.

  11. Calling Joe Clark….

  12. Surely there is no one left who still bottom posts is there? Most of the world’s internet users aren’t even old enough to remember when there was an argument let alone when bottom posting was considered the norm.

  13. Top-posting is ok unless you quote with ‘> ‘ or other indent.

    And the mess in chain-mails is another problem : Forwarding.

    So my personal rules are :
    – reply has to be self explanatory ? top-posting (no indent)
    – reply has not to be self explanatory ? inline (indent)
    – forwarding : never indent, and sometimes remove headers

  14. Molly – I agree with you 100%, but I think you left out one more horrible method of posting comments. Almost every e-mail client I’ve used, other than Outlook, automatically defaults to including the original message as an attachment rather than including it in the message when you reply or forward it. Because none of our e-mail clients (including Outlook) can seem to agree on a standard file format for e-mail messages, nine times out of ten, you end up attaching something that the receiver can’t open.

    In fact, newsgroups were notorious (I don’t subscribe to any active listservs anymore, so I’m not sure if they still do) for including original messages as attachments. This could get really hairy and confusing when you started to get more than one level deep in the conversation.

    I do think that top-posting makes complete sense, for more reasons than you pointed out, but your reasoning is, by far, the most important of them.

  15. I think Google Wave may be an “answer” to this. It seems to be a more intuitive way to communicate electronically.

    • and how does google wave solve the problem?
      It doesn’t offer anything new actually. It can add even more mess with inline posting (you’ll be forced to use their playback feature just to understand who said what and when)

      anyway it’s not ready and current early beta is unstable

  16. I agree only as far as email and blogging goes.

    Comments are a different story entirely. It doesn’t make sense to read down a blog entry halfway down, then scroll to the bottom of the page and read the comments from the bottom back up to the middle. Even worse are the articles that paginate comments, so you read all kinds of replies to original comments you have to click through to read.

  17. Twitter, Facebook, and some other things are streams, which are very good with top posting. But on blogs, I make it a point to read the post and then each comment. I see horribly context-less comments all the time where someone just skipped to the end and posted their own comment without reading any of the others.

    I think I like inline the best. Sure, people run out of context, but those are the same people who don’t read all the comments, anyways.

  18. a “Yup, I’m on the task” should always be at the top. It’s stupid to bottom post it. Anything more advanced shold be at the bottom

    On desktop computers there’s a Page Down key that lets anyone reach the bottom of a message in no time.

    On mobile devices, one should use this neat little application: to view web based email. i has a nice keyboard shortcut to go directly to the bottom of a page.


    Oh, and email clients could actually allow to “fold” away older conversation, “a la” Gmail.


  19. I very strongly agree with this, I’ve been a top poster for as long as I’ve been emailing (way before the social networking boom). As an active participant in a written conversation it makes no sense whatsoever to have to scroll through all previous messages in a thread in order to read and reply to the most recent one.

  20. On the flip side, Gmail hides previously-quoted text pretty well (even on my mobile) so it’s evolving to cope regardless of the style in use. Eventually I wonder if it will get smart enough to reflow emails the way we want them..?

    Of course with your “I’m on it” scenario the sender’s original crime was their failure to trim out the bulk of the email!

  21. I have never been bothered by using any one style of posting in e-mails. I have really never seen any one style to be vastly more effective than any other, and each style seems effective in different situations. As long as you don’t clip the content in a really dumb manner, and respect the conventions of that particular list to a degree, so you are not going against the grain so much. I think your points here have logic Molly, although I still don;t really see what all the fuss is all about ๐Ÿ˜‰

    What does bother me is the amount of frothing religious fervour people have over subjects like this in the tech industry. It is funny, I distinctly remember one instance where in the SAME DAY I got savaged for top posting on my work e-mail list, then I swapped over, and a few hours later got savaged for bottom posting on one of the mailing lists I subscribe to (ok, so it was an accessibility list – I guess Molly’s fourth reason for bottom posting sucking rings true here).

    But even so, c’mon…!

  22. How sad. Top posting is the way to go only if you don’t care enough to quote sensibly or if you love to have *entire* previous thread to be contained in every single email you get.

  23. To me, the bigger problem is responders — especially in mailing list threads — failing to trim the quotes. I get a lot of digests, and talk about scrolling through miles of redundant crap! Sometimes I think I’m going to start a mobile fire when I flick-flick-flick my way past humongous quotes (into which some other clients apparently insert extra white space between lines — sheesh!) while reading on my iPhone.

  24. There are, then, the out-of-context postings, regardless of whether the post is inline, top, bottom or sideways, that drop off the radar.

    In the vein of out-of-context, have been waiting for you to weigh-in on the Chrome Frame IE plug-in.

    Also, looking forward to more articles/posts by Claire Wudowsky.

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  26. Your reasons for frowning upon bottom-posting are mostly irrelevant if the mail reader (like GMail) collapses the commented text, even automatically most the time.

    Anyway, I’m an inline-posting person, so…

  27. I will post your bottom any day, Molly my dear.

  28. I see you have been fully Microsofted. Some of us write E-mails with more than one point in them, you know, a concept unknown in Redmond, home of top-posting.

    Your argument is like a right-wing senatorโ€™s claim that women in the workforce are the biggest threat to the family. A lie, in other words.

  29. What about a “skip to bottom” or “skip to latest message/comment” link?

  30. I disagree with your thoughts. I find it easier to read comments in a forum or blog post top-to-bottom. On the other hand on my newsfeed reader I want to see the most recent articles on the top.

    If you’re so gung ho on abolishing bottom-posting, why don’t you start setting the example and change
    a) the order of the comments below blog posts on your site
    b) the fact that in oder to submit this comment I had to scroll all the way down to the end of this page?

  31. As a person who is multi-lingual in my posting style (always inline with Joe Clark), I have to disagree on one point. If you feel that bottom-posting is too hard on your wrists/fingers/what have you, you’re probably just using the wrong email application or you need assistive technology. That’s not to say that such things exist that will help you, but that they ought to.

    Also, I’ll note that your comments go oldest to newest, and I’ll bet that’s how you read your feeds as well. ๐Ÿ™‚

  32. this is not a posting problem. this is a scrolling problem, we need better ways to scroll.

    one can also gather a list of flaws for inline and top postings. this won’t take us anywhere though…

  33. So, maybe you should top-post blog comments? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  34. Could not. Disagree. More.

    I’m a fervent bottom-poster, and you should be, too. No sense throwing out proper communication and decorum but some joker at Twitter or Facebook structures his application a certain way.

    Nosiree bob, never include me with the top-posting mouthbreathers.

  35. A scrolling is not problem. Actually, the logic is simple because inline posting is a dialog.

  36. Hmmm….I agree that its different each time what kinda posting is best BUT i know some Blogs with reaaallly many comments and intensive discussions and its all on 1 page and you have to scroll to the ende of the page to write a comment. That is no REAL problem, but it could be made easier.

    On the other hand, top posting can be pretty confusing if you also got a different sorting method for your trackbacks…

    Hmm be honest: i’ve no opinion about that point ^^

  37. I think I will top post from now on, just to piss you off, specifically.

    “Could not. Disagree. More.

    Iโ€™m a fervent bottom-poster, and you should be, too. No sense throwing out proper communication and decorum but some joker at Twitter or Facebook structures his application a certain way.

    Nosiree bob, never include me with the top-posting mouthbreathers.”

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  39. Alas, here I am the bottom-most poster of bottom posting.

    Just wanted to drop in and say thank you very much for your very educational articles at Peachpit from 2004. As a novice CSS user (I know my site needs it!), I’ve found your advice the best of all such things I’ve harvested from the net so far.

    An early retiree, I look at how prolific you are and I’m so worn out I’m tempted to go take a nap. But keep it up!

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  41. I have to agree. I’ve always preferred top-posting much to the dismay of some of the more vocal types out there. Their argument is that they prefer bottom posting thus that’s the way I should do it. End of story. I get rather annoyed with this. I never voice a response, but if I were to do it I’d angrily ask them what gives them the right to demand that their preference overrides my own? Screw that. I suppose I have just as much right to go around berating people for bottom posting because I prefer it the other way. I’ll refrain, though.

  42. On Tuesday 29 September 2009, Molly said:
    >Bottom posting sucks. Letโ€™s abolish it now and get on with the day.

    It puts the reply in context when you combine it with a very short quote from the original message. When a message reaches me with multiple points to be addressed in my reply, I quote each point briefly in turn, and send multiple replies. Memory should not be relied upon when someone might be replying to my reply days or even weeks later. Since this system will work well with top or bottom posting I suggest it as a friendly amendment:-)

  43. I think that many of the defenders of bottom posting have simple misunderstood Molly’s definition of bottom posting:

    “The responder writes at the very bottom of the discussion, leaving the previous dialog intact and creates a sequential order for the discussion.”

    The important bit being “leaving the previous dialog intact”.

    So the question here isn’t really about just any kind of top or bottom posting, but the case where you leave the *entire* previous dialog intact.

    So why would you ever want to do that? Shouldn’t you always just pick out the part of the message that you explicitly want to respond to?

    1. An obvious reason for quoting the entire previous message would be the case where the message was really short, so that trimming it further wouldn’t make any sense. But when the quoted message is short the scrolling argument doesn’t hold any more.

    2. Another reason would be when you forward the letter to somebody. In that case it seems to be already established practice that top-posting is the way to go.

    3. I can imagine some scenarious when you would want to keep the entire large previous message intact, but I don’t find myself in these situations very often. Actually I can not remember even a single case where that would have been beneficial.

    So in the case of forwarding and in some hypotetical case where I’m required to keep the previous message intact, I guess top-posting is better. But in all other cases I don’t buy it.

  44. “Bottom posting. The responder writes at the very bottom of the discussion, leaving the previous dialog intact and creates a sequential order for the discussion.”

    Isn’t this precisely what I’m doing right now when I’m writing a comment on your blog?

  45. Though I agree that bottom posting is not the way to go at all (is that still used by anyone), there’s a huge danger in top posting.

    Most people are lazy and won’t bother to follow the whole conversation. In many cases, valuable info is lost because people think they get the conversation halfway through, while in reality they’re missing the point completely. Simply because they didn’t scroll through.

    Inline posting is nice, though becomes insanely hard to follow whenever a third person enters or a discussion is formed.

    Bottom line: emails are not suited for discussions. Really ๐Ÿ™‚

  46. Really, why can people be bothered by posting style. As long as you can read things, it’s all fine with me. I’d say: there are loads and loads of things to be more worried about than top, bottom or inline replies.

  47. You have to remember that one of the reasons for bottom posting was the technology. Back in the days of VT100 terminals it was far easier to have a program that responds at the bottom of an e-mail than at the top. The UI removed that technological requirement. Personally I respond either in-line or at the bottom but that’s just because I’m old. Whether you post top, inline, or bottom, blatant reposting of an entire thread in these days of cheap memory is just bad manners. Snip so that only the relevant bits you are responding to are present and then it doesn’t matter so much where the response is.


    Responding at the bottom : -)

  48. I wouldn’t equate typical blog entries with a conversation–at least that’s not how I read other bloggers’ posts unless they are sectional (e.g.- Part 1, Part 2, etc).

  49. Molly,
    Sensible editing of quoted material is far more important than the order.
    In some circumstances, top posting a short reply works well, such as if it is an immediate response to a one-to-one email.
    Where many people are involved in a discussion, bottom-posting generally works far better, and is the only sensible way to go if your reply is actually to someone else’s reply:
    > > Question
    > Silly Answer

    Me: No, You’re wrong

    See how easy that flows, now reverse it and it makes no sense at all – you have to search for the start of each section, read down, then move back up to search for the next section, and finally back to the top to see the latest content.

    Interesting that you propose Twitter etc to prove your point, and completely ignore the comments system on this very blog.

  50. I agree with previous comments that say there is no “Holy Grail” of post order. However, lets first get out of the way something else I saw earlier: I really hate blogs that order the individual comments from newest to oldest. I always prefer to see the oldest comment first and the scroll down to the newer. It makes no sense to start with the newest comment because often times the first comments set the stage for the discussion. There would have to be tons of unneeded quoting to make a new reader get quickly up-to-date with the discussion. On the other hand, if the oldest comments are displayed first the user can briefly scan down the page to get caught up, stopping on comments that pique their interest.

    On the topic of the “Holy Grail”, I find that each of the 3 types of postings have their own merit. You’re right, it really makes no sense to me to include the entire previous e-mail/message in a discussion before making your response if the conversation is filled with long messages. It is far better to make your point then include the email/message below yours. That way the user can ignore it if they want, or read it if they need a refresher. However, if you are only responding to one short point, it isn’t a bad idea to include it at the top of your message. This is kind of a gray area between in-line and bottom posting in my opinion though.

    In-line posting has it’s own problems, especially when you want to address several topics in one post/message. You can end up with a response this is double or triple as long as it needed to be, because of all the extra formatting needed to make the quotes stand out. This can also be seen as a very nit-picky way to post, because it blatantly exposes how many of the previous authors points you need to respond to.

    Top-posting, in my opinion, should be the most commonly used. As I said earlier, you make your point at the top of your message so that all who have been following the entire conversation can continue unhindered. You include the message you are responding to at the bottom of your post so that new users can understand where you are coming from if they are just joining the party. This gives the best experience to both new and old readers in most situations.

    That’s just my 2 cents.

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