View Full Version : Mailing List Manners 101

Ton Van Den Bogert
05-11-1999, 02:20 AM
Dear Biomch-L subscribers,

An article with this title was recently distributed on the TidBits
newsletter and is available online at:

Thanks to Gerald Smith for bringing this
to my attention.

Ton van den Bogert, Biomch-L co-moderator


Mailing List Manners 101
by Adam C. Engst

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
* 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

**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

* 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

* 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?

> wondering
> 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

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 )" 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:

1) 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.

2) 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.

3) 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.

4) 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

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

* 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.

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