maanantaina, toukokuuta 07, 2007

Quoting text in email

Today's Dilbert seems to make fun of people who reply to emails and do not include the original email in the reply. Why is this?

I am a dinosaur and I can still remember there was a time when email programs did not have graphical user interfaces and buttons. Instead you pressed keys on the keyboard to make things happen. Most of the email programs had assigned the R key to reply and the Shift+R to reply with quote. (To those who are coming late to the game, "quote", refers to including the original email.)

This assignment of key commands tells me that in the past it used to be more common to reply to emails and NOT quote the original email.

However, I never witnessed such time myself. When I was new to email, it was common practice to quote a small part of the original email, just to show what part of the original your reply was about. It was considered rude to the extreme to quote the original email in full and then reply with only a couple of words.

Seldom could you quote the full original email and that was reserved for the occasions when you wanted to disprove everything in the original email. You would do this by adding your witty commentary after every sentence or paragraph of the quoted message, puncturing the other's arguments step-by-step like they were a string of balloons.

Then something changed.

I'm not exactly sure what it was. Was it the AOL users who flooded the Internet? Or was it the redmondian software giant that created the abomination called Microsoft Mail and it's spawn, Outlook.

Whatever it was, it changed the existing culture of Internet email. Suddenly, it became the norm to always include the original email in full. And because it would be inconvenient for the person reading the reply to scroll all the way to the end of the message to see what, if anything, worth reading would be there, it also became the norm to write the reply to the top of the message, above the quoted text. "Top-posting", as it was called, used to be considered bad behaviour.

I too must plead guilty to both of these crimes. I am no better than others. I see everyone else do it, and I somehow think it makes it less of a crime to do likewise.

My only defense is that Outlook makes it darned difficult to behave properly:
  • Outlook does not have a button to reply without quoting (well, none of the modern email programs do.)
  • Outlook places the cursor to the top of the reply.
  • Outlook's insane way of wrapping text makes it hard to edit the quoted text. It is such a mess that one takes a quick look at it and turns one's eyes in disgust, deciding only to write the reply and hoping the receiver won't pay attention to the eyesore the quote has become.
Many people actually like that the thread of the conversation is recorded and accumulated in the end of the message. It makes it possible to easily review what was said earlier and it allows those who get invited in the thread later to easily catch up.

As an engineer and a professional programmer, this insults my intelligence. Can we really not come up with anything better than sending the same bits back and forth? Would all of this even be necessary if email programs could group messages relating to the discussion, making it easy to refer to earlier emails? We used to have email clients capable of performing this magnificent feat but Outlook most certainly fails, badly.

However, there is some hope: The best web-based email, Google's Gmail, threads email discussions elegantly and reliably. Gmail even hides the quoted text, because the engineers at Google understand that it is only wasted space. If you need to see the original, they make it available only one keystroke away.

If only I could use Gmail for my work email. And don't even get me started on the fiasco that is Outlook's Search feature.

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