Mailing List Etiquette

(or “how to appear like you know what you’re doing”) Historically the Freelancers list has been laissez-faire to some extent. However I’m hoping that the WAUK list will continue to be a resource of much higher quality and that these guidelines will be adhered to by all posters. The original Freelancers guide is now at the bottom.

To Start

“You are welcome here. We’re nice people; decent, professional, respectful behaviour is expected, this doesn’t mean we are dry and cynical though – laughter is permitted!” – Carla.

Why All This Fuss?

Because there is only one writer, but many readers, and the list is a co-operative affair. Save other people time by making your posts good ones. Read “why top-posting is bad” for more on why you should make your posts easy to read.

Setting up Your Mail Client

The “from” name and address that you use are there to help other people identify the author, so in general your name should be your full name,capitalised in the normal way. Just putting your first name there doesn’t help people know which “John” it is. Putting something like “freelancers” doesn’t help us much at all. Shouting your name is rude. If you really need to set up your posting name with info for your own benefit, do it in brackets, e.g. “Jo Smith (wauk)”.

Sigs

By convention you can have a signature up to four lines long. It should begin with “– ” (that’s “dash dash space”) all by itself on a line. Many email clients recognise the sig-sep and remove the signature when replying. Again by convention, your sig is yours to do with as you please: it’s an ideal space to put contact details (website, phone number) and a description of what services you offer. Long legal disclaimers just make you look like a numpty. If you’re compelled to have one by your employers – surely you’re in the wrong place?

Filters

You will probably want to manage all mailing list mail in a separate folder. Many of us subscribe under a different email address to our normal one, and this makes it easy to filter. You can also filter on the “reply-to” address.

Saying Hello

Introducing yourself to the list when you join with a brief description of what you do and where you do it is okay. But no “pimping”.

General

No HTML, no binaries, no attachments. Plain text only.

Correct spelling and grammar make your posts easier to read. So do your best. Equally, pointing out other people’s (spelling) mistakes is frowned upon. Of course, correcting factual mistakes is okay.

Posts should be considered, read and re-read before hitting send. Email can be very impersonal and unconsidered posts can appear terse and unhelpful. Don’t post when angry – leave it overnight, or go and make a cup of tea.

“Pimping” (or more correctly “soliciting”, says Carrie) is frowned upon. If somebody offers paid work, contact them off-list. If somebody wants to pay you to do something, then they will contact you off-list. Don’t post to the list offering help in return for money.

If somebody says that they are looking to buy *goods* rather than services, then it’s generally acceptable to say what you can supply at what price, on-list.

Line Lengths

Keep your line lengths short: about 76 characters works for most people. Why?
1) Not all mail clients flow text the same way.
2) Not all mail clients flow text at all.
3) Some mail clients re-wrap text that’s already been wrapped, and produce “comb-effect” postings that are hard to follow.
4) Some mailservers get into the act by changing the wrapping on long lines, making the whole mess even worse.

Posting a Question

When you have a new question, make a new post, with a meaningful subject line. Do not reply to an existing thread. Even if you change the subject, for many people your post will be part of the existing thread. This makes it difficult to find. If you are adding to your own existing thread, then reply, don’t make a new post!

Some More Details on Why That’s a Bad Idea:

When you reply to an existing mail message, your mail client will almost certainly add hidden headers which indicate which message you are replying to. These will be called “In-Reply-To” and “References”. Advanced mail programs (for example Thunderbird) allow users to see their mail in a threaded view which uses these headers to display messages with replies either hidden or below and attached to the original message. If you send a new message as a reply then even if you give the message a new subject the threading headers will still be there and anyone using a threaded view will see your message buried deep within an existing thread. In fact it might even be worse than that. It might be that someone who can answer your question has become bored with the thread that you reply to. They may have set their mail program to ignore further messages in that thread. So your message will potentially not be seen by the people who you want to read it.

And, yes, I know that some popular email programs either don’t add the threading headers (Outlook) or ignore the threading headers when displaying messages and try to do it just by comparing subjects (Gmail). These mail programs are ignoring well-known internet standards and are therefore broken. Many of us are clueful enough to use non-broken tools – please don’t make it harder than it needs to be to help you.

Smart Questions

Read the “smart questions” document below. Smart questions get smart answers. In short: do your own research first. People that post questions answered by a single Google query rapidly lose goodwill.

  • state *exactly* what hardware / software you are using (e.g. “XP Pro SP2”, not “Windows”).
  • state what you have tried, and where you have looked for answers
  • state the overall goal, not the intermediate problem. Often somebody will know a better way than the approach you have taken (which is not working, otherwise you wouldn’t be asking for advice!)

The OT Rule

Any post that is considered ‘Off Topic’ should include ‘OT’ in the subject line. This includes asking questions about pets, TV, the weather and links to news sites (eg, the BBC) and flash games – to name a few.

Posting a Reply

Do not top-post.

In more detail: when you reply, start at the top. Yes, really. At this point you may wish to make a prefatory comment. The “why top-posting is bad” article gives an example of where this was appropriate. Next, move through the quoted material deleting that which is not relevant. Then, when you find some quoted material you wish to respond to, leave a blank line and then make your point. Leave a blank line before any more quoted material. See “why top-posting is bad” for an example, you might also read this: http://lists.w3.org/Archives/Public/w3c-wai-gl/2004AprJun/0873.html

Quoted material should be indicated by the standard “>” at the beginning of the line. Outlook users probably want to install Quotefix which helps.

Why Didn’t I Get a Response?

Sometimes you post a question and nobody answers. Why?

Firstly, give it time. At least a day. Secondly, perhaps nobody knows. Thirdly, perhaps somebody does know but they’ve decided against sharing it with you. There are a number of reasons why somebody might decide that they don’t want to spend their time on your problem. For example, this author has noticed that a few people never ever seem to contribute. Mentally, I’ve consigned them to a blacklist. They never help others, so I will only help them if I’m in a good mood. People that do not follow netiquette may also find themselves on my blacklist. Lastly, if I feel that someone is out of their depth, there doesn’t seem much point in responding.

Non-smart questions usually get responses asking for you to explain yourself better, but they may just get ignored.

Autoresponders

Never set up an autoresponder to the mailing list, telling us all that you are on holiday or out of the office. We will hate you for it.

And Finally

“Do not be afraid to ask questions. There are helpful people here. Nobody was born with this knowledge – and we are all still learning.” I wrote that for this mailing list meta-FAQ: http://www.cobaltfacts.com/metafaq.html which now I’ve remembered it, I don’t know why I didn’t just adapt it!


Other Useful Netiquette Sites

How to ask smart questions


Dom’s Post On Why Top-Posting Is Bad

From: Dom Latter

To: freelancers

Date: Tue, 18 May 2004 01:44:12 +0100

Apologies in advance for a long post on our least-favourite subject – but Neelesh *did* ask…

On Sunday 16 May 2004 11:48 pm, Neelesh Sonawane wrote:

> I know this comes up every now & then & it still doesn’t make sense to me.

> If I’m following a conversation I don’t want to have to scroll through a number of previously read messages to find out what the > latest reply is.

Nope, nobody does. The purpose of the quote is to provide context; out of respect for one’s audience one should strive to make a post as easy to read as possible, and that means providing sufficient context to make sense of the post. (Remember that some of your audience will see your reply before the original post.)

That means quoting sufficiently, and no more, or providing a precis of the previous post.

If people quote *properly* then you do not need to “scroll through” previously read messages.

Quoting properly does take a little bit of thought and effort: but in one-to-many communication not taking a bit of time and effort on behalf of your audience is – let’s face it – unthinking and inconsiderate (and I think I’m being polite there).

Let’s say a hundred people read this list. If each poster takes an extra minute editing their post so that each reader can spend one *second* less on the post, we are collectively 40 seconds better off. And this mailing list *is* a collective endeavour. It can only work through co-operation.

The same principle applies to things like punctuating, formatting, using capital letters at the beginning of sentences… the message I get from badly-formatted badly-written top-posts is “scr*w you, I’m only here for what I can get out of it”.

At this point I feel I should acknowledge those list members who are both useful and top-posters – I value your posts. (I just wish you’d adopt The One True Way, goddammit). And, while I’m at it, I accept that some people are more comfortable with a more informal style that doesn’t read like something you’re handing in to your English teacher…

> Top post it & it’s there & if you want to catch up on the subject then the original message is below (hopefully edited to size).

> What is the harm in that?

Except that almost without fail, top-posters never edit posts, and instead you get huge screeds of material quoted multiple times and five copies of the list sig file, all for a one word “Thanks” at the top. (Which, amongst other things, makes the digest form of the list all but unusable).

Secondly, I have yet to see a top-poster come up with a satisfactory way of answering multiple questions (or points) in a single post, as I am doing now.

> Why is it the bottom posters who get all uppity about it & think they are doing the right thing?

The flippant answer is that it’s Rule Number Five. (See sig). Less flippantly, because it really is the only way of maintaining a high signal-to-noise ratio; it really is the only way of having threaded discussion. This is not my “personal preference” – it’s something that’s been established through *decades* of experience on Usenet and on mailing lists, thousands of flame wars and probably one or two dead bodies. It is notable that the relevant RFCs for Usenet don’t actually specify that the reply should follow the quote – it’s just understood that this is the order of things.

What happened, of course, is that A Certain Mail Client suddenly started getting used by lots of people, and this mail client had a default setting of quoting the previous message without the industry standard quote marks, thereby making it very difficult to quote in the “normal” way. It is arguable that for one-to-one communication the Outlook style quoting is appropriate… but I’m not convinced.

> Not trying to flame or antagonise anyone, just curious.

I hope I have responded in a similar spirit. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that posting-style wars are tedious, needlessly antagonistic and a waste of everybody’s time.


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