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.





5 responses to “Email, should the “Old Ways” quietly die?”

  1. Peter Adams avatar
    Peter Adams

    I top-post and I can often be found with up to ten levels of quote on the bottom of my emails at work because I get grief if I do it any other way. The “Outlook way” has largely become the standard in the workplace and people rely on it to follow the flow of conversion. If I was to embed my reply within the quote they would miss it. Likewise if I don’t keep the quoted message they won’t see the context of the mail. Because Outlook doesn’t thread the mail and Outlook is the only client that exists in most workplaces this is the way to go. You’ll also find email is becoming increasingly replaced by other forms of communication for many outside corporate, such as social networking sites and cheaper SMS.

    Email is dying a death because Microsoft were so efficient at making Outlook a “standard”, a cumbersome standard. Where their way of doing things has become the only way for so many and they’ve grown to hate it.

    Personally I would have loved to see Google Wave take off, but it won’t d so unless it gets some sort of miracle boost into the mainstream. That could have been done by Google with a funky built-in Wave/Buzz client for Android but so far that hasn’t happened and the Android Gmail app rather frustratingly features forced top-posting.

    Even with proper threaded clients email might have a comfortable future, but a future for Email dominated by outdated Outlook style email sorting that’s designed to resemble a 1950s civil service filing cabinet is a piss poor future and it’s no wonder the masses want to avoid using it if possible. It’s too much like work.

  2. Colin Turner avatar
    Colin Turner

    Well Peter, I reckon you are probably right sadly. It’s frustrating though when some lazy idiotic company destroys a useful culture.

    I share your feelings about Google Wave.

  3. Arjen Lentz avatar
    Arjen Lentz

    From another former FidoNet user (and architect/programmer – The-Box and Xenia mailers/editor, Hydra filetransfer protocol), hi!
    Indeed that’s where some of our email replying skills come from. Is good.
    Outlook has a lot to answer for in this respect… nasty way of working.

  4. Colin Turner avatar
    Colin Turner

    Hi Joaquim,

    Yes, I guess it’s true that at least fewer huge media files wind up coming at you in circular emails any more, and that’s something to be grateful for :-).

    As for the CC thing… my favourite issue is that some academic conference signs you (and several hundred / thousand) other people up to a mailing list and start to spam you; or sometimes it’s just a period of high activity in a regular list. This starts the great “unsubscribe run” where more and more people start writing into the *list* asking to be unsubscribed rather than following the (usually clear) instructions on how to do it. This causes more people to do the same and so on. Away to lie down now.

    Yes, it has been too long indeed. At this time my fiscal situation is still a bit tight to allow for much travel (and I’ve still to replace my lost passport), but I will pop over at some stage :-).

    Take care,


  5. Colin Turner avatar
    Colin Turner

    Hi Arjen,

    You didn’t really have to introduce yourself, I was more than aware of who you were/are :-).

    Indeed, Outlook has a lot to answer for. I also remember from the old Fido days how we would laugh at hoax messages that proclaimed if you even *viewed* a message with a given title it would do all sorts of mischief to your computer.

    And then someone developed a program that would execute arbitrary attachments of certain kinds without any user intervention.


    PS. I see from your wiki you share a lot of my current preoccupations :-).

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