Top to Bottom

Just came across this .sig in someone’s email:

A: Yes.
| Q: Are you sure?
| | A: Because it reverses the logical flow of conversation.
| | | Q: Why is top posting frowned upon?

Geeky, but reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend a while ago – he was the first programmer-type I had encountered who actually advocated top-posting comments in email threads. Why? Because most email conversations are very short, and the information you want should be the most visible. With top-posting, you can usually see the info you need in your mail client’s preview pane, without having to open and scroll through the message. Sort of for the same reason that virtually all weblogs post most recent info at the top, rather than in true chronological order. He was right — top-posting does make most email conversation more fluid. The system backfires when:

A) The two parties don’t agree on a protocol, and the thread wanders up and down the page willy nilly.

B) A brief top-posting thread evolves into a longer thread, with the need to respond to individual bits rather than to the message as a whole. In this case, there is sometimes an awkward transition as the posting order turns itself inside out.

I’m a switch-hitter on this one, and go both ways depending on message content and mood. Anyone out there adamantly top or bottom? (Cue the sub-dom jokes :)

Music: Stereolab :: Seeperbold

10 Replies to “Top to Bottom”

  1. I’m an adamant bottom-poster. This probably stems from the fact that I’m a longtime Usenet user, and on Usenet top-posting leads to a total breakdown in thread cohesion. The same can be said of mailing lists.

    Also, top-posting goes against the logical flow of conversation. If you top-post, and so does the other person in the conversation, it might make it easier for the two of you to get to the meat of the conversation quickly, but as soon as someone else joins in (say you forward the last e-mail) they’re lost.

    Also, Microsoft products (Outlook and derivatives) encourage top-posting, and in some cases make it difficult to turn it off. To quote the Wikipedia article on top-posting:

    Microsoft has had a significant influence on top-posting by the ubiquity of its software; its email and newsreader software top-posts by default, and in several cases makes it difficult not to top-post; many users apparently have accepted Microsoft’s default as a de facto standard.

    Perhaps because of Microsoft’s influence, top-posting is more common on mailing lists and in personal email. Top-posting is viewed as seriously destructive to mailing-list digests, where multiple levels of top-posting are difficult to skip. It is, moreover, nearly irresistible to post an entire digest back to the mailing list, then top-post a reply to that message.

    If there’s one sure-fire way to tell if something is wrong, just see if Microsoft does it. If they do, it’s wrong. ;)

    Please reply to this comment below, or in-line. ;)

  2. A friend of mine has complained that *any* inter-textual replying ‘plays hob’ with his dyslexic tendancies so for him I wind up addressing his points by reference at the top of the page

    Why the top? Newspaper format. The most important stuff is first, and the rest is there as reference.

    From choice, I respond after paragraphs from laziness – it saves me summarizing the original author’s point.


  3. mnep, good point – The default configuration for all blogging software that I know if is reverse chron for stories, forward chron for comments on those stories.

  4. I was actually a big fan of interspersing replies. It made it a lot easier to address individual arguments or questions with a decent response or rebuttal.

    But, much of this was back in the days of comp.sys.amiga.advocacy, which was three platforms ago for me…;)

    And none of this images from smilies either.

    The ironic thing is that not too long ago I found an old OctaMed song (Rainlight) and converted it to AAC: this track came on while I was writing this reply.

    I think iTunes is spying on me.

  5. Bottom Posting also encourages Cropping of non-contextual content.
    If I only want to discuss one aspect of a post, I’ll trim all other paragraphs, and place my response after that particular paragraph. It adds context to my comment.

    There’s nothing worse than receiving an email from someone which is multiple Megabytes in size, but only contains about 30 Kilobytes of relevant information.

    Bottom posting is also used by all Major IM Clients, as well as IRC.

  6. I top-post with lawyers and bottom post with programmers… and pshaw to the criticism that it interrupts the flow of conversation… if we were conversing, we’d be interrupting each other anyway.

  7. At the beginning of the year, I worked with a client, a “C-level executive” who used Outlook. She despised bottom-posting, and complained multiple times when I did it instinctively.

    But, what she was really complaining about was that she didn’t want the details. What she wanted was a 1-2 sentence answer, at the top of the message, so she could open, read, and delete.

    So, sometimes it’s not the style, it’s the amount of detail. Usenet-style point-by-point discussions rarely work well in a top-posting style, but if you’re writing to a “C-level” super-important-person-whose-time-must-not-be-wasted, top posting info-bits is the way to go.

    Hated working for her…

  8. It’s not just Microsoft – Gmail encourages top-posting too hiding text that repeats from message to message and by collecting replies into “conversations” so you can easily scan the original. Though I’m a programmer, I buck the trend and generally top-post unless there’s a *really* good reason to do otherwise.

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