Why Top Posting Has Won

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Why Top Posting Has Won - 2018/06/13

I've recently realised that, in my head, there's a connection between top-posting in email and washing the dishes. Stay with me, I'll see if I can make the connection for you.

One of the things that confused and annoyed me as I was growing up was that proverbs contradicted each other. So for example we have "Look before you leap", but we also have "He who hesitates is lost." We have "Absence makes the heart grow fonder", but we also have "Out of sight, out of mind".

And so on. So frustrating.

It wasn't until some years later that I realised that proverbs aren't in fact intended to capture and express universal truths. Proverbs are a neat, slick, and easy way of expressing those thoughts you already have. Proverbs are a way of avoiding work while still communicating your thoughts.

But part of the problem I then see with proverbs is that they can act as "thought terminating cliches". You trot out the proverb, and then no one has to think any more. Everything is done, dusted, complete, clear, and finished. They come as self-contained little nuggets that are left unexamined and unchallenged. Whereas often they should be used as a starting point for further discussion.

So, for example, I remember putting off a particular task and I was admonished with "A stitch in time saves nine." Never mind that I didn't actually understand what they were trying to communicate, it turns out that while this piece of wisdom seems unassailable, it's not necessarily right.

To see that, let's start by looking at what it is actually trying to say. You have a garment, and a seam has popped, or is starting to fray. There's a danger that it will unravel, and then fixing it could take significantly greater effort. So the idea is that if you attend to it now you can forestall that and save yourself potentially large amounts of work. A single stitch now (although obviously it might actually be more than one stitch) can save having to do many stitches later. A stitch now avoids many stitches later. Hence a stitch in time saves nine.

But actually the garment might not unravel, and by doing the work now you are losing the opportunity to do other things that might potentially be more valuable, or more rewarding. So it's not a foregone conclusion that this is the right thing to be doing, even though the proverb closes down all discussion.

And human nature being what it is, we will always tend to put off unpleasant, uninteresting, or unrewarding tasks, even on those occasions when they will save the total time and work expended overall. So even though leaving the dishes results in more work because the food ends up dried on, there's still a tendency to leave the washing up to later. Of course in that case there really is no advantage to postponement, because the work will have to be done, but in other cases the work might become irrelevant or otherwise unnecessary, so postponement can actually make sense.

With me so far?

"Yes" you reply, "But what's the connection with top-posting?"

Top posting is where you reply to an email by putting your comment at the top, and leaving the entire email - possibly an entire thread - below and intact. To do so is quick, simple, and easy for you, the sender. And when the thread is short, possibly just a single email, it's easy for the receiver to see the context, and to know to what you are replying.

But when the thread is long, and when your reply is to a point deeper inside, suddenly the receiver has to do a lot of work. You, the sender, have saved yourself time, but the receiver has to do more work than you have saved. Potentially a lot more work.

So top-posting makes sense while the thread is short, but ceases to make sense when the discussion grows and becomes complex. The problem is that that's exactly when the thread needs to be distilled, and replies need to be made in place, to make it clear what you are commenting on, or replying to.

But by the time the thread has grown to a point where this becomes effectively essential, it's too late. Without putting in the effort all the way through, it's impossible to recover the situation, and even more time is spent trying to understand the thread, to untangle the points, and to find meaning.

So top-posting is a form of procrastination. It's a method whereby the sender avoids doing any work in the hope that no work will be needed. And to be fair, often it isn't. But sometimes it is, and in those cases I curse top-posting, and desperately wish that the earlier internet norm of in-line posting was still prevalent.

But that won't happen. It's too late. Some email clients make it nearly impossible to use in-line replies, and people just won't do it. People won't do work unless it's rewarding, or compulsory. Human nature tells us that top-posting will always win unless some form of in-line posting becomes (a) painless, (b) compulsory, and (c) rewarding.

I'm working on that.

You can read more about posting styles here:

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