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Usenet is not a web site

© July 2005 Tony Lawrence

This is an old article about Usenet newsgroups and is only left here for historical purposes.

Far too often now you'll find something like this in a Usenet post:

I disagree.  Your arguments make no sense.

And that's it.

Do you have any idea what this is about? Nope, and either do a lot of the folks reading the newsgroup. The post is completely devoid of context. You do have the Subject line, so you could go back through recent posts with that subject and you might figure out which post caused this disagreement. If you are a little more savvy or have the right tools, you can use the "References:" line. But that might not work either, because it's quite possible that the original post hasn't yet reached your newsreader server.

There are probably two reasons we are seeing more of this. One is that more neophyte computer users are discovering Usenet groups. I'm not entirely sure why that is - it may be nothing more than that Google has a "Groups" link that will do your search within newsgroups. Without that, a lot of these people wouldn't know anything about Usenet groups.

Perhaps Google is the source: many of these messages have the tell-tale "googlegroups.com" in the "Message-ID:" line of the header. If they use Google to post, they may have discovered Usenet that way. Of course other folks use Google too: those whose ISP doesn't provide a newsfeed, people traveling, and people who have someone learned about Usenet but don't know how to get a newsreader configured. But the folks who don't include context obviously don't understand how Usenet works: they seem to think it's no different than a bulletin board on a website: if they reply to a post, their reply will be properly threaded and the original post will be easily visible. More importantly, they assume that there is no circumstance where another reader could see their reply without the parent of that reply being available.

Of course that's not necessarily true with Usenet. The original post may arrive much later at other news servers, and sometimes may not arrive at all. That's why quoting context is so important. And that's another place where Google falls down.

If you read a post using Google Groups, and just hit Reply, Google includes no context at all. Google can do quoted context, but to get that you either need to either immediately hit Preview (before typing anything else) or not use that Reply button and instead choose "Show Options" and use the "Reply" there. Either of these will quote the original message, though sadly Google still leaves the cursor positioned for a Top-Posting reply, which is another sin that new Usenet posters are apt to commit.

That's not entirely Google's fault, and tt's not the end of the world; it's just a culture change: there's nothing inherently evil about top-posting. For some conversations, it's actually better, because less relevant material is lower on the page.

Some people, particularly newbies, find Usenet style confusing - it's why you'll see people at message boards saying that they hate Usenet. The same people get confused if you reply to them "in-line" in email. I've had customers write back asking why I didn't answer their questions. Of course I did, but it was in-line and they get confused. I make a mental note to always top-post when replying to them, and to use bookish quoting:

You asked "what is blah blah".  Blah blah is..

I think part of that is mechanical reading skill. Poor readers don't automatically go into high speed browse mode for lines beginning with ">" - maybe they don't even have a high speed browse mode. So they can't effortlessly pick out the lines that don't have leading ">" (and batten the hatches if they have to put up with it and someone changes the quote character - oh my!).

It's hard for them to tell what's going on - bottom posting is probably easier for them than in-line, but even bottom posting is hard because they have to look very carefully to see where the new text starts. People with poor reading skills are the ones most likely to tell you that they "haven't figured out this computer stuff yet".

There is also a relationship between poor reading, poor spelling and dislike of Unix command lines. Poor typing skills don't seem to matter (plenty of one finger Unix typists around) but poor readers don't like text interfaces and poor spellers sure don't like command lines.

But - all that aside - top posting is just a cultural thing. It's nothing to do with written language flow, it does have advantages, but "we" don't like it. And because this is what the majority is used to and expects, visitors should follow the convention or risk anger. At least while they are still the minority.

But they won't be the minority for much longer. It seems that tradional Usenet can't last. While the "old guard" is still there, those folks will be dropping away over the next decade or so, and new folk are coming in droves every day. The new folks may learn to quote context now and then, but if they do, they'll probably top-post. So I expect that Usenet will slowly change and will look very different twenty years from now.

But there will probably still be someone complaining about Top Posting or Bottom Posting or whatever the latest sin is..

The following Newsgroup exchange came a bit later..

From: Tony Lawrence <tony@pcunix.com>
Subject: Re: Top posting or Bottom?  WHO THE HELL CARES!
Date: Sun, 01 Dec 2002 14:37:05 -0500

Jay Maynard wrote:
> On Sun, 01 Dec 2002 13:13:50 -0500, Tony Lawrence <tony@pcunix.com> wrote:
>>The whole Top Posting stuff reminds me of html mail.  It's an 
>>abomination, it often ticks me off, but there is absolutely no point in 
>>fighting it.
> Actually, I reject HTML email out of hand, with a message that says I accept
> email in text only. Isn't postfix wonderful?

Obviously you don't have clients (or don't care about keeping them).  If 
I sent a message like that back, I bet half my customers wouldn't know 
what to do - they don't even KNOW they are sending HTML.  Heck, my wife 
doesn't even know that (and yes, I've tried to explain it to her).

>>Top posting is generally the wrong thing to do, but like html, it isn't
>>ALWAYS wrong, and enough people do it that the rest of us just need to bite
>>our tongues and get used to it.
> Yes, it is always wrong. Period.

That's probably what the dinosaurs thought about the mammals too.

People's brains work in different ways.  Some people don't like the form 
of interspersed quoting/replying that we are used to.  I suspect it is 
perhaps related to the whole dumbing down of computers stuff -  the 
folks who have been at this a long time think differently.  We never 
would have gotten into this stuff early on if we did not think 
differently, but what is logical to us isn't always logical to someone 

Different isn't wrong.  Enforcing your social conventions upon other 
people is what causes mild discomfort and discrimination at one end and 
wars and terrorism at the other.  Do we want to homogenize the world? 
We need to grow up and allow different strokes for different folks.  I'm 
reaching way beyond the minor example of top posting here, but isn't it 
interesting how Americans are so quick to condemn such quaint Muslim 
customs as stoning while brooking no interference with our own methods 
of capital punishment?  We criticize them for forcing women to wear 
veils, but think nothing of forcing women to cover their breasts here. 
We supposedly have freedom of religion, but I doubt Americans would 
allow the Oriental penis worship cults to practice here.

It's time to stop making laws about behaviour, in or out of newsgroups. 
If you can't stand the sight of a six foot wooden penis, don't look at it.  If 
you can't bring yourself to read a top posted comment, pass it by.  But 
YOUR cultural imprintings shouldn't be law.  That doesn't mean that you 
shouldn't be free to post in the interspersed method or have a more 
conventional religion.  Everyone else needs to allow you your freedom 
too.  I don't think that offense of cultural values should be an excuse 
for any negative reaction at all.  If you want to politely explain why 
you find Jebus more appealing than a penis, or interspersed posting more 
coherent than top posting, fine, have at it.  But the other person 
shouldn't have to listen to you or change their actions just because you 
don't like it.

Got something to add? Send me email.

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