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USENET and Mailing List posting netiquette

...or what to do and what not to do in public :o)

Don't be impatient
Don't crosspost
Choose a meaningful subject
Don't post in HTML
Avoid using kiddie-speak and SMS-ese
Do wrap lines appropriately
Top-posting and trimming
Quoting and attribution
Do not reply off-list
Do not set a Reply-To: header

As the number of areas where people refer to this "being polite HOWTO" increases, it would be a good idea to point out that these netiquette guidelines don't just apply in Linux-related circles. Yes, I know that the URL starts off with the word Linux, but that's just the name of the server on which I put this document. The guidelines herein apply absolutely everywhere where clarity, consistency and conciseness are paramount.

Before you run away from here screaming "net nazi!" and claiming that I want to censor what you have to say, sit down and think for a couple of minutes. Read through the document and then try and point out one place where you're being told what you can and can't say. Found any yet? No. I didn't think so. What you are being told is how to say what you want to say. All that is asked of you is the few minutes it'll take you to read through what's here, and then the tiny amount of extra effort it'll take you to prepare a message which is tidy, straight to the point and which has the most chance of being acted upon, instead of the mess it would be otherwise (especially if you use a Microsoft mail client).

Thanks in advance for your time!

Below are a set of rules by which you should try and abide whenever posting to a public area such as USENET or a mailing list. They are designed with one thing in mind: being polite to your fellow netizens. Failure to do so can make you look at best inconsiderate, if not plain stupid, or even lead more "seasoned" netizens to believe that you're trolling (deliberately stirring up a fuss in order to draw attention to yourself and/or start up a fight - or flamefest). In the long run you'll just get yourself PLONKED (added to people's killfiles so they no longer have to read what you have to say), which is fairly counter-productive if your intentions are worthy.

You can avoid yourself this embarrassment (and everybody else's displeasure) by following the basic rules described here:

  1. Don't SHOUT! While it might look clearer to you if everything is in capitals in your message, it is considered SHOUTING, and therefore very rude. By all means put the occasional word in capitals to emphasize it and help get your point across, but not a whole message! did an amusing take on this back in 2001: see here.

    Other similar ways of emphasizing words are:
    Using asterisks - a word enclosed in asterisks will be rendered by some newsreaders and mail clients (and interpreted by people) as being bold. Thus, "you *can* do this" will be displayed or interpreted as "you can do this".

    Using underscores - a word enclosed in underscores means that it is supposed to be underlined. "I _think_ you're wrong" will be understood as "I think you're wrong".

    Using slashes - you can make people understand that word should be in italics by enclosing it in '/' characters. "You /should/ be able to do this" will be understood as "You should be able to do this".
  2. Don't be impatient. The people who populate these lists and newsgroups aren't paid for their time. Others whining and bitching about not getting answers quickly enough are not going to give them the incentive to carry on giving up their spare time for the cause if all they get in in return is a barrage of complaints. Don't kill the golden goose.
  3. When starting a new thread don't just reply to a message sent by someone else and clear the subject line. Not all e-mail and news clients behave like yours and will thread messages correctly based on the "Message-ID:", "In-Reply-To:" and "References:" headers embedded in the messages. Only programs which don't comply with Internet standards sort messages by subject and call that "threading". When you simply change the subject of a message, all of the threading information remains intact and your new "thread" simply continues at the end of the old one. This is called thread hijacking.

    By doing this, you're shooting yourself in the foot twice over. First of all, people following a thread don't want to see unrelated messages cropping up in the middle of it. The most complacent will just delete your message without reading it, others will killfile you, some having complained to you asking you to learn how to post. Secondly, those who aren't interested in the hijacked thread and who have set their programs to ignore it won't even see your message.

    If you want to start a new thread then use your mailer's/newsreader's "New Message" function. This will start a fresh thread of your own without any traces of previous threads.
  4. Do not cross-post. Subscribing to more than one mailing list and/or newsgroup in order to get a broader idea of the subject you're interested in is very commendable because it shows that you've researched your sources of information. Do you think you're the only one to have done so?

    By cross-posting your question to every list you know of, the chances are that several people, usually the very "gurus" on whom you rely for information, will see your message as many times as there are lists to which you posted your question. By the time they've deleted the fourth copy of the message they're going to start being thoroughly annoyed and will most likely disregard your question and move on. This is not what you wanted, is it?

    Sit back and think about your question, then think about the particularities of each mailing list and newsgroup you're subscribed to. First of all, post your question to the place where you think you're most likely to get a reply. If nothing comes back after a day or two then post elsewhere. Don't just blast your question off all over the place first time round.

    There are, of course, specific reasons why you might want to post the same thing to several areas, like to make an announcement for example - but at least ask permission of the list owners beforehand, and let everyone know that your message is crossposted by adding [CROSSPOST] to the subject or at the top of the message.
  5. Choose a meaningful subject for your questions. There a many list members who have a specialisation in a particular domain, let's say in solving problems related to mail filtering and delivery for example's sake. If you just put something like Need help!, Problem or What's wrong? in the subject of your posting, those who are most qualified to help you, and who skim over the daily batch of messages picking out those that they're most likely to be able to help with, aren't even going to read your message. OTOH, if your subject says something more precise, like ClamAV doesn't detect viruses or Need help with a procmail recipe, you will attract their attention and stand more chance of getting a solution to your problem.
  6. Do not post in HTML. There are several reasons why posting in HTML is a bad idea. These links should help convince you why:
    HTML mail is evil!
    Why HTML in E-Mail is a Bad Idea
    The ASCII Ribbon Campaign
  7. Avoid kiddie-speak and SMS-ese. The use of abbreviations like "plz" instead of "please", "u" instead of "you", "wanna" instead of "want to" etc. doesn't make you look like a 7331 h4x0r. It makes you look like an idiot. E-mail and Usenet aren't transmitted via SMS so you're not limited to 160 characters in your postings and don't need to condense them as much as possible like you would if you were using your cellphone. Obviously, use of abbreveiations that really do save time without impairing people's ability to read your message isn't a problem − most people know what AFAIK and IMHO mean, for example.
  8. Make sure your lines are no longer than 72 to 76 characters in length.
    Once again, you can't assume that all e-mail and news clients behave like yours, and while yours might wrap lines automatically when the text reaches the right of the window containing it, not all do.
    That was annoying trying to read that line, wasn't it!

    Now try and imagine how people will feel about your messages if they are nothing but a succession of such lines which spread off the screen.

    Enough said...

    If your mailer/newsreader doesn't wrap outgoing messages then at least have the courtesy to do so manually before sending your message off.
  9. DO NOT TOP-POST and DO trim your replies!!! Top-posting is the annoying practice of replying to a message by typing your response above that to which you are responding. This is a Bad Thing™ because your readers will have to scroll down and extract the essential of the existing thread in order to grasp the context of your reply, and then scroll back up again to read your reply.

    Posting a "me too" comment at the bottom of a 100+ line message is no better because people have to scroll all the way down through 100+ lines they've already read in order to see your one-liner. One word comes to mind for that: frustrating.

    The generally accepted "right way" of doing things is called "inline posting", whereby you insert your comments straight after that on which you are commenting, having stripped unnecessary text from the original quoted text. The end result is something which makes much more sense because it reads like a conversation.

    Please read this page, which goes into some detail:

    More information on why top-posting is a Bad Thing™ here:
    Top posting according to The Ursine Wiki
    The Absolute Beginner's guide to Usenet - FAQ - Top Posting
    Top posting vs. bottom posting
    Dan's Mail Format Site | Quoting | Bottom Posting
    Email quotes and inclusion conventions
  10. Concerning SIGNATURES:

    Many people include a signature at the end of their messages. This signature may contain useful information like how to unmunge a munged e-mail address, how to grab that person's public OpenPGP key, or just trivia and maybe humoristic phrases.

    The signature should not be a novel. Keep it short - the generally accepted length is no more than 4 lines but nobody will yell at you if it's 5 or 6. Things will start getting out of hand if your signature is much longer than that.

    The signature itself should be separated from the rest of the body by a signature delimiter. The standard for that delimiter is "-- " (dash dash space) on its own on a line. Everything above it in the body will be displayed. The delimiter itself and everything below it will be stripped by the newsreader/mailer when someone wants to reply to a message with such a signature, and some mailers/newsreaders won't even display the signature in the first place.

    If people start complaining about the fact that you're sending blank messages, pay special attention to what you're sending and where you're putting the "-- ". As usual, don't assume everyone's software behaves like yours. In fact, if you receive complaints and you don't know why, the chances are that your software isn't behaving at all. Microsoft Outlook Express and Outlook, for example, are totally incapable of handling signatures, or text wrapping for that matter, in a standards-compliant manner without third party add-ons such as "QuoteFix" (which exists in two versions: QuoteFix for Outlook and QuoteFix for Outlook Express).

    Finally, bear in mind that some automated mail management systems such as mailman, majordomo, ecartis and the like will carry on trying to process your signature as commands unless it is separated from the real commands by the usual "-- " delimiter.

    When you reply to a message, almost all newsreaders and mail clients will quote the text to which you're replying by adding a line or phrase which attributes the original text to its author, and by inserting a quotation mark (usually a ">" greater-than sign followed by a space) on the left of the quoted text.

    This serves two fundamental purposes:
    1. Correct identification of the person to whom you're replying, and
    2. Correct attribution of the quoted text to the original author and of the new text to you.

    Any mailer or newsreader which doesn't quote correctly means that nobody reading your message is going to know who wrote what, and knowing Murphy's Law, your message is going to look like you're attributing some incredibly stupid statement to a very bright person who wouldn't have been caught dead making it.
  12. DO NOT WRITE DIRECTLY TO LIST/GROUP MEMBERS unless they specifically ask you to.

    Usenet traffic should remain on the newsgroup (and most people post with a munged address anyway in order to avoid being spammed into oblivion) and public mail on a mailing list should remain public. Many mailing list subscribers choose to receive mailing list traffic in a periodic digest in order to avoid clogging up their inbox. Some even elect not to receive any mail at all and prefer to follow list discussions in online archives.

    Please respect the right that these people have to decide what goes into their inbox. Failure to do so is a lack of respect for the recipient similar to that displayed by spammers.
  13. DO NOT SET A Reply-To: HEADER in your messages sent to a mailing list.

    Most mailing lists are rigged up so that replies to a message posted to the list also go to the list so that everybody can be kept in the discussion which, since it started in a public area, should remain public unless it drifts off-topic. The list server achieves this in either of two ways.

    The most common method is to inject special headers into traffic that is distributed by the list server (see RFC2369). A mailer that has a "reply to list" function (most do) will observe these headers and send replies to mailing list messages back to the mailing list itself instead of to the original sender.

    Another method used is to add a Reply-To: header to messages sent out to list subscribers, directing the subscribers' mail clients to send replies to the given address (that of the mailing list) rather than to the original poster.

    By adding a Reply-To: header yourself, you're overriding the list server's normal behaviour and demanding that replies to your message be sent to you rather than to the mailing list. By all means, if you're asking a question which isn't entirely on-topic then you can also ask list members to reply privately, but please do so explicitly in the message body rather than messing with the headers.

    Contary to common belief, you do not need to have a Reply-To: header in normal one-to-one correspondance. It is only useful if you want your correspondant to reply to an address different from the one from which you are sending him or her your messages.
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