A: No.
Q: Should I top-post?
– Classic signature block.

No standard anywhere enforces quoting style, and this is a bad thing. The reason this is a bad thing is that, while computers can handle alternate styles without difficulty, humans can’t. You can’t bottom-post into a top-posted thread and be understandable, or vice versa. The style will act as a barrier to anyone that doesn’t share it. More, quoting style has network effects; the more people use a given style, the more pressure there will be for others to adopt it, in order to communicate with them. [1]

I often bitch about the corruption of email and the death of Usenet, and I think a lot of it comes from the lack of quoting standards. With respect to quoting and references, discussion software must be able to handle Aunt Tillie. In particular, it must produce an acceptable, consistent style with zero effort.

Bottom/interleaved style is and always has been the Right Thing. It still lost the mindshare war. The reason it lost the mindshare war is that it requires the sender to think about what they are doing when composing a message. Not very much, perhaps a few seconds, but that is a few seconds more than most people will commit to rendering their message legible. It is more convenient to the person writing the message, choosing the style, to externalize the cost of clarity to their readers.

Never bet against convenience.

Objection: “So what? The set of people who can’t be stuffed to do it right aren’t people I want to be talking to anyway. Good articulation is a virtue.”

I answer that: Of course they aren’t. The trouble is, there are many, many more of those people than there are of us. You may not want to talk to them. But there are people you know who do, or who have to, and they are going to gradually adopt the same bad habits. People with a flexible communication style are always at a disadvantage; they must adopt the standards of their conversational partners, or no communication can happen. Bad quoting drives out good.

That is, in essence, what has happened. TOFU quoting won the war because it was convenient for the managers and the Aunt Tillies, i.e. most people. It does provide context, if in a terrible way, and asks nothing of the writer. Common email clients and services probably adopted it because the people paying the developers used it. Bystanders followed simply because it was the default, and they had no reason to fight an email war.

As the mindshare of interleaved posting became negligible, new clients stopped supporting it at all (I am thinking mostly of mail on phones). Top posting has become fixated outside of a few technical circles, and it has become very difficult to make headway against it. Even the engineers at my (tech company) workplace don’t recognize the style as Wrong.

This should not be. But it is. Interleaved quoting will never become standard for email again, because it requires care for composition, and users do not care. The colossal fecal trail left in octuplicate under every message will continue, because users do not care, and they’re used to it. Network effects will do the rest. kthxbye.

Note the qualifier above: “For email.” Look at web forums. I hate the move to web forums for unrelated reasons, but they have solved this specific problem: Thread posts are ordered chronologically and without gratuitous duplication, so you can read them.

I think they managed this because they chose a default that, while not as good as interleaving, actually works pretty well: no quoting. If the user can’t be bothered to provide context, let them send anyway – bare – and have the interface sort it out.

And it works. J. Random Luser doesn’t need to think about composing, the bystanders adopt the new standard without confusion, and the people who want to provide specific context can do so. Content rules, as it should. This is only possible because the interface is guaranteed to provide any missing context, a guarantee that holds because the service provider is also the client provider.[2] No-quoting doesn’t work very well in a news client, because you can’t see the content of the previous post.

But that is a technology issue, not a user education issue. Users can’t be fixed. Clients can.

The browser as a whole makes a shitty discussion interface. I would like to move Internet discussion back into a standardized, client-independent form. This can’t be done with current software. Web support is mandatory for anything that aims to attract a non-trivial audience. You can write a web NNTP client or gateway, but you can’t make it effortless for its users without breaking context for the people who use real ones. Enforcing quoting will confuse people who see everything on one page; leaving quotes out leaves those using a native client in the dark.

The more I think about it, the more I figure that we don’t actually need a successor to the NNTP protocol itself. We need a web frontend for NNTP that looks like Reddit…and we need native clients that display intelligent context, so quote-free messages from the unwashed make sense. As long as the clients don’t top-post (and I’ve never seen a dedicated newsreader that did), everything’s fine.

If this sounds like I’m advocating something like Deja News and its successor, Google Groups, I guess I am. But the problem with them is that they were, and are, terrible software with no regard for interoperability or consideration for others. A web interface to NNTP is not inherently a bad idea. Reddit does something similar mostly-well, from all I’ve seen. Web UIs have come a long way since nineteen-ninety-whatever.

It doesn’t solve email. But I think it does solve discussion. Let quoteless be the standard, let NNTP be the transport, let web be available, and let reference headers handle the rest.

Postscript

It might be possible to fix quoting in email, too, now that I think of it. A client that displays context based on reference headers, as in Mac Mail, can get it mostly right without having to poison every mail server it touches with mountains of crap. That leaves the question of how to handle the case of adding a new person to an existing mail chain. I suggest: Have the client include every message from the existing thread, references intact, as an attachment or set of attachments; such that the receiving software can display what it needs to, without considering it part of the text or including it in its own replies. You still get duplication, but that duplication happens once per additional user, not once per message per user. The expansion of the crud is O(N), not O(N2).

This still requires something like a standard, in that mail clients all have to follow it for it to work. But it seems within the realm of technical possibility to me. Users mostly don’t actually care about having all the quoted stuff in every message, I think; they care about being able to see it when they need to.

There remains the problem of HTML in email, which is really the problem of message markup that is not readable by humans. HTML’s prominence is as horrible as top-posting, but as with quoting style, users don’t really care. If one were designing a new infrastructure, standardizing on markdown, asciidoc, reStructuredText, or a similar human-readable markup format would work fine, I think, with more elaborate documents being distributed the way they should be – as attachments.


  1. I like to think this is why even my friends, who have been around long enough to know better, at some point all shifted to top posting. Don’t disillusion me, please.  ↩

  2. Which I loathe, although it has its benefits.  ↩