Email, should the “Old Ways” quietly die?

I was having an enjoyable early Summer BBQ chat with Mark Kerr and Jonathan (Noodles) McDowell a few weeks ago. We know each other from the days of Fidonet’s greatest glory. Fidonet still exists, but back then the internet did not have a presence in normal people’s lives, academics I worked with at Queen’s only selectively had email access, and that through the dark arts of Kermit. Back then a few of us ran Bulletin Board Systems, over plain vanilla modems with all sorts of speeds, 1200 bps transfer rates were common.

The systems were held together as nodes in Fidonet, and the hundreds or thousands of users on each system could send a form of email to other users in the same system, or even users across the world. Every message was piggy backed on the daily or nightly phone calls from one system to a neighbouring system. Mark and I would call some odd systems, like that of Joaquim Homrighausen and Mats Wallin in Sweden, and we would happily carry any mail going for Sweden or coming back.

Everyone was sharing a bit of the cost. As such, it was considered the height of poor etiquette to reply to a message tens of lines long, quoting the whole message with a “me too” at the top or the bottom. You were expecting someone else to pay for transmitting the whole original message again, just for your extra words. You were expecting in echomail (the Fidonet equivalent of newsgroups, or mailing lists) that hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of systems would store all that information on all those hard disks.

No, it was correct to trim a few salient lines from the original, and put your reply below it. That’s enough for everyone to see what is going on. Every mail editor in existence showed the quoted text either with a “>” character to the left, or sometimes a “CT>” to indicate the initials of who wrote it.

These trimmed, quoted conversations allowed the full flow of the conversation to be followed by anyone without referring back to every word uttered by the original poster, and showed the coherence of the thread in a way that is hard to do in any other way. Google Wave is perhaps a modern attempt at the same idea.

But than people grew indifferent to bandwidth because there was so much, so they never bothered to trim their replies. You can expect in a modern mailing list to find each reply containing complete copies of all the previous correspondence to that point, which is already stored in the list, shown in a nice threaded view in your editor. Some new email programs (I’m looking at you, Outlook), made it almost impossible for people to do anything other than “top post”, because they don’t easily show quoted text.

And here I am, an old dinosaur who still tries to stick to the old ways, because I believe it’s easier to read properly quoted replies… but increasingly, you can’t have conversations with people with braindead mail software because they just can’t do it. And they haven’t even seen it before, they can’t understand it. They complain when you don’t top post your replies. Like the stereotypical cantankerous codger sitting in his porch watching the kids mess on his lawn I want to tell them that no, they are the ones doing it in the stupid new fangled way. We were here first. 🙂

So maybe we should just give up… those few of us left, but then I was reminded (by Noodles) that now email is being shipped around mobile devices all the old arguments of bandwidth and storage are increasingly relevant again. So I ask the open question, is there any point in trying to stick to the “old ways”? Thoughts on a postcard please.