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MAILING LISTS

How to post to a Mailing List

Be nice, welcome newbies | Plain text or HTML? | Quoting
Signatures and Separators | Standards and RFC compliance

This is the page you almost certainly think you don't need to read. After all, it's only sending an email, isn't it? Well, yes, but you will will be starting or contributing to a discussion, and your email will be delivered to multiple recipients, some of whom may have different expectations of it.

So what difference does any of this make?

Warning: this page contains opinions.

BE NICE, WELCOME NEWBIES

Mailing lists are not populated by a static subscriber base; people come and go and new people may subscribe at any time. 'Newbies' should be able to introduce themselves, be welcomed, make mistakes and ask what some might consider to be dumb or obvious questions without getting lectured about their novice status or their choice of email program. If there's a problem it'll get sorted in due course. So please welcome new subscribers and play nicely.

PLAIN TEXT OR HTML?

Sadly many people have been seduced by the idea that emails are better with pretty pastel backgrounds, company logos at the top. laughing hyenas in the corner, flowers down one side and fonts in all eight colours of the rainbow. You can only do this by creating emails in HTML, the hyper-text mark-up language which was developed for creating web pages. WEB PAGES! OK?

I don't know who it was who decided that HTML emails were a pretty neat idea but in my opinion they should be first against the wall when the revolution comes. And shot. It's not that I'm a Luddite, far from it, but as soon as you start including in emails all the paraphernalia which you might reasonably expect to find on a web site emails have the potential to become the work of the devil. Scurrilous rogues start sending out thousands of official-looking corporate logo-strewn emails claiming to be from the bank or the government and exhorting the hard-of-thinking to click on this innocent-looking link to "confirm" their bank details or buy the latest wonder drug. If HTML email were not even possible the Internet world would be a safer, less predatory place. But it is possible and we can't put the genie back in the bottle.

What we can say is that email servers around the world carry billions of emails every day. A lot of them are spam of course, but generally speaking HTML emails are generally at least three times the size of their plain text equivalent, so save the whales and the Ozone layer, send plain text email!

As it happens most mailing list servers will either reject HTML emails or, as ours do, they will strip out the HTML component which, if that's all there is, will leave nothing, except the friendly message that the HTML bit's been stripped out. Ha ha. Chortle chortle. Our mailing lists will also strip out any attachments. So there. You can't blame us for that nasty virus your Outlook Express has become infected with.

QUOTING

The first thing to consider is citation or quoting excerpts from previous correspondence. Usually it's useful to quote something of the email you are responding to, but there is rarely any need to quote all of it - just pick out the relevant point(s) and then add your response. Some people simply append their response after the quote while others will insert their responses point-by-point. The latter requires a little more effort but the result seems conversational and in my opinion friendlier and easier to follow. This depends on it being easy to distinguish which text is citation and which is new, original response. Traditionally this is achieved by the email program inserting chevron characters at the start of each quoted line:

Mike Brown wrote:
> there is
> rarely any need to quote all of it - just pick out the relevant
> point(s) and then add your response.

A bit like this.

> This depends on it being easy to distinguish which text is
> citation and which is new, original response. Traditionally
> this is achieved by the email program inserting chevron
> characters at the start of each quoted line:


Like that. Different email programs may take advantage of these
chevrons in different ways. Some may additionally change the colour
of the text or indent it, for example.

Quoting briefly and clearly is of particular importance to those who receive their list messages in the form of a daily digest. This is where the list compiles all the day's emails into one. Those who elect to receive the digest will find it more confusing to have to wade through acres of text, much of which is simply repetition.

When quoting, please make sure you attribute your quotes correctly. Things can become misleading when several people are contributing to a particular discussion. If you receive this from Alexander Heath:

Craig Kelly wrote:
>
> Mike Brown wrote:
>
>> there is
>> rarely any need to quote all of it - just pick out the relevant
>> point(s) and then add your response.
>
> A bit like this.
>
> I quite agree. Brevity is the sole of wit.

I'm bored with this discussion. It is of no relevance.

and then reply:

Alexander Heath wrote:

>> I quite agree. Brevity is the sole of wit.

Please don't be so pompous.

You have dropped at least one bollock. Possibly two. Unless. of course you happen to be female in which case you will be capable of creating your own analogy.

SIGNATURES AND SEPARATORS

So, we all know what a signature is, don't we? It's those few lines (ideally no more than four) at the end of an email with which people habitually sign off.

Alexander Heath wrote:

>> I quite agree. Brevity is the sole of wit.

Please don't be so pompous.

--
Mike Brown
News At Ten
Redruth

Very innocuous, surely? What can go wrong here? Well, you'd be surprised, because once again our dear friends at Microsoft contrive to cock things up royally for the unwary. First, look just above the signature to the two dashes. This is a signature separator and is not - or should not be - simply two dashes, but two dashes followed by a space! Subtle difference, eh? So what? Well to understand the significance of this subtlety it is necessary to understand that standards compliant email programs recognise signature separators and use them in formatting an email reply.

To illustrate this let's start with a simple email like this:

Hello Eccles,

Do you know what the time is, my good man?

-- 
Bluebottle
Scoutmaster
Bexhill-on-Sea

Now Eccles replies using a standards-compliant email program and it thoughtfully presents him with this, ready for him to type his reply:

Bluebottle wrote:

> Hello Eccles,
>
> Do you know what the time is, my good man?

Eccles types his reply here

--
Eccles
Twit
No fixed abode

So. Do you see what's happened? In preparing an email for Eccles to use in reply it has quoted the main body of Bluebottle's email and discarded his signature. Cool. Just what we want.

Now let's look at an alternative scenario in which Eccles is using Outlook Express. Go on Eccles, click on reply, let's see what happens...

Eccles is expected to type his reply here.

-----Original Message-----
From: Bluebottle
Sent: 01 January 1956 08:00
To: My friend Eccles
Subject: Re: Chronometric exactitudes
Bluebottle wrote:

> Hello Eccles,
>
> Do you know what the time is, my good man?


--
Bluebottle
Scoutmaster
East Finchley

Well, it's OK I suppose, but the lovely Microsoft program has not stropped out Bluebottle's sig, and this immediately becomes a source of confusion, especially, once again, to those taking the digest version of the list. They don't have a nice unambiguous set of email headers to guide them. so who, they wonder, not unreasonably, actually wrote what, and to whom?!

Now, let's say Dear Eccles has half a clue and decides he wants to do what he's seen the grown-ups do and answer the question after it's been asked by replying below the quoted text rather than above it, like this:

Eccles is expected to type his reply here but he doesn't, he replies down the bottom instead.

-----Original Message-----
From: Bluebottle
Sent: 01 January 1956 08:00
To: My friend Eccles
Subject: Re: Chronometric exactitudes
Bluebottle wrote:

> Hello Eccles,
>
> Do you know what the time is, my good man?


--
Bluebottle
Scoutmaster
Bexhill-on-Sea


Hello Bottle, my friend. Yes, I know what time it is.
I got it writted down on a piece of paper what it is 8 O'clock.

--
Eccles
Twit
No fixed abode

OK. Well, now things are really starting to get messy. So let's have a look at this dog's breakfast and see what's actually ocurring here. We have:

  1. Microsoft's very own unnecessarily cumbersome standard reply separator, separating the original email from, er, nothing, cos there's nothing above it.
  2. A reply which doesn't look quite like a quote because there's no chevrons or indenting, but with...
  3. A signature separator and a signature, followed immediately buy a reply
  4. A broken Microsoft signature separator which nothing on God's Earth will recognise because it's just two dashes with no space!
  5. Another signature.

Hands up all those who think I'm just being nit-picky and arsey here? Yes, I thought so. Quite a few of you. But look where the working signature separator is. Now children... hands up if you can work out what happens when someone with a standards-compliant email program tries to reply to this dog's breakfast...? Anyone...? (Hint: technically everything below the signature separator is in green)

So let's try it:

Eccles wrote:

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Bluebottle
> Sent: 01 January 1956 08:00
> To: My friend Eccles Subject: Re: Chronometric exactitudes
>
> Bluebottle wrote:
>

>> Hello Eccles,
>>
>> Do you know what the time is, my good man?




--
Bluebottle
Scoutmaster
East Finchley

Yep, the program has neatly discarded the unwanted sig, complete with the content of the email Bluebottle wanted to reply to. Very irritating!

STANDARDS and RFC COMPLIANCE

So, what are these 'standards' that I've been referring to? Believe it or not there is such a thing as an agreed standard which defines exactly how the elements of an email (or Internet Message) should be formed. It's part of a set of rules agreed democratically, largely by the early, academic Internet users who created the frameworks which we all use today. These email standards are embodied in a document known as RFC 2822 (RFC stands for Request For Comments).

Now the pedantic may argue that these rules, standards or conventions (call them what you will) were developed for Usenet and not strictly relevant to mailing lists, but the similarity of function makes them perfectly applicable.

Those of us who care about such things naturally agree that the better email programs are those which comply with the standards we accept and adopt. In practice the main culprits are Microsoft's email programs Outlook Express and Outlook. Outlook Express is widely used because it comes bundled with Windows and Outlook, it's more capable stable-mate, is part of Microsoft Office. Both of these email programs are full-featured, powerful, easy-to-use and seriously flawed in terms of compliance to accepted standards.

If you use these programs and do not wish to change you can still post to mailing lists but you should bear in mind that default installations of Outlook Express and Outlook

You may not care about such niceties but there will be those on mailing lists who do, and fortunately these problems are easily fixed. A splendid chap named Dominick Jain has written fixes which cure most of the problems with Outlook and Outlook Express and I strongly recommend that you read his pages then download and install his software. It's free and your fellow list members will appreciate it more than you can imagine.

Those pages also give similar examples and explanations of why Outlook Express and Outlook produce emails styled like canine fodder.

Of course, having said all that it is perfectly possible to post to any mailing list using out-of-the box installations of Outlook Express or Outlook but at least if you've read this page you'll have some clue about the issues.

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