Mailing List Etiquette FAQ

Copyright 1996-2004 Brian Edmonds

$Revision: 1.14 $ $Date: 2004/08/12 13:50:50 $

This document may be freely retransmitted in Usenet or email; permission to reproduce in any other media should be requested from the author, Brian Edmonds <brian@gweep.ca>. The latest edition of this FAQ can be found on the web at:

There have been a number of documents written about netiquette, most of them quite good, and this FAQ will probably seem to some to be little more than a retelling of an old story. Those that I know of are listed below, and I gratefully acknowledge both their instruction and their inspiration in writing this FAQ. Primarily this is aimed towards subscribers to the mailing lists which I run personally, but I would like to think that it should apply equally to most any other list. If you run a mailing list, and would like to send new members copies, or include links to this in your list web page, please do.




Contents



How do I post to the list?

When you subscribed, you probably received an information file about the list. Included in this information is usually the mail address to which posts should be mailed. Typically, if you contacted the address wilma-request@mail.server.site to subscribe to the group, then the posting address will be wilma@mail.server.site. Or, if you contacted a LISTSERV or Majordomo server at mail.server.site to subscribe to the list betty, then the list address will likewise be betty@mail.server.site.

When replying to messages you receive from the list, you should acquaint yourself with the reply options of your mail reader. Most mail programs will have at least two reply modes: private and group. A private reply will go only to the person who sent the original message. A group reply by default should go to the original author, the list, and to any people who received private copies of the original message. You should be able to edit this list of addresses to reduce it to just the list address, plus any other people you think should receive private copies.

Please make sure that your postings have a meaningful subject line, as many people use this to help determine which posts to read and which to ignore when they're operating under time constraints. If you're replying to a message and the topic of your reply is drifting from the original subject, then edit it. A common convention is to change a subject of ``Wilma's hair'' to ``Betty's hair (was Wilma's hair)'' when you do this to provide continuity between the threads. Try to snip off any obsolete ``was'' bits though, or subject lines can get unmanageably long.

Finally, do not use deceptive subject lines that you think may help attract attention. It may work once or twice, but like the boy who cried wolf, if you keep wasting people's time in this way, they'll soon start ignoring your posts entirely. Honesty, clarity and conciseness are the best policy when composing your subject line.



Is there anything I should not post to the list?

The basic rule is that as long as your post has some content related to the primary subject of the list, and does not contain much off-topic material, then it is fine for the list. Specifically, for almost every list, this will immediately rule out many or all commercial ads, postings on how to make money (such as MAKE MONEY FAST), sociology surveys, help with homework, hot international news, and requests for people to send birthday greetings to your friend.

Also, you should not post inflammatory (aka flame) mail to the list. It is perfectly fine to disagree with people publicly, but be careful how you do it. For example, if you think someone is lying on a subject, it may be fine to say ``Betty's claims about Wilma's hair stylist are a lie,'' but it is over the line to say ``Betty is a liar''.

On the flip side, if someone posts something with which you are in particular agreement, that's great. You should not, however, follow up to the list with a post containing no more than ``Me too!'' or ``Right on, brother!'' If you have something of substance to add to the discussion, then by all means do so, but if you simply wish to express a simple agreement, then do it in private mail.

You should not post subscribe or unsubscribe requests to the list. They won't do any good there, and will do little more than annoy other subscribers (unless they're filtered out by the list server, in which case they will only annoy the list owner: not exactly a winning move either). When you subscribe to the list, you should receive a file explaining among other things, how to unsubscribe: keep this! If worst come to worst, and you really cannot figure out how to leave the list, contact the list owner and ask (politely) for help.

You should also not repost private email to the list unless you have obtained prior consent from the author. Such reposting is at best considered extremely rude, and in some legal jurisdictions may be a violation of copyright, or other rights of the original author.

See also the related section on binaries and other large files.



Are there any important formatting considerations?

Visual formatting is very important in a textual medium like email. If your postings are poorly formatted, they will be hard to read, and people will tire of them quickly. As a result, fewer people will read what you write to the end, and many will begin to skip your posts entirely.

Most importantly, learn to use the enter (or return) key on your keyboard. The video display width of many network users is limited to 80 columns, and text which wraps beyond that length is quite a bit more difficult to read. Since your text may be indented when quoted by others you should keep your lines to a maximum length somewhere below that point -- around 70 characters is a good target. There are of course exceptions, such as wide tables, and long URLs, but the rule is to keep it well under 80.

Be careful if you use a program which wraps your posts when you send them. If you wrap at a wider column than it does, you may end up with alternating long and short lines where it wraps one or two words from each long line, but fails to join them to the next. If you know that your software operates this way, you may be best off to simply write each paragraph as one long line, and let it do all the wrapping. Be very sure that this is the case though, as postings that come through with really long, single line paragraphs are also annoying to read.

Wrapping at a considerably narrower margin, such as 40 characters is also more difficult to read, as one must page down much more often. However, don't be afraid to use blank lines to separate your paragraphs, and do break your text into paragraphs. In fact, keeping paragraphs fairly short is also easier to read; around ten lines is a good upper limit.

Be careful when using tabs for indenting, as they will display differently on other platforms. Also, avoid control characters and other fancy visual effects which are likely platform specific. When composing (and reading) mail, you're best to stick with a mono-spaced font (as opposed to proportionally spaced), and avoid anything other than the most basic text you can use to get your message across.



Is properly grammer and speeling imprtnt, d00dz?

Like formatting, grammar and spelling are also very important in a textual medium. One author, whose name I have forgotten, has compared posting material containing glaring grammar and spelling mistakes with being dirty and unkempt in personal contacts. In any case, your postings reflect on you, so you should be proud of them.

Also keep in mind, that with the proliferation of network indexing services, it is becoming easier all the time to quickly compile a personality profile of a network user based on what he or she posts, both to Usenet, and (currently to a lesser extent) on mailing lists. Be aware that your friends, family, romantic interests, and employers (current and future) will all have access to this information. Again, others will judge you based on both what you say, and how you say it, so give each posting careful thought.

On the flip side, it is generally not worthwhile to publicly correct the spelling or grammar in something written by someone else. For many users on the net, English is not their first language, and even for some for whom it is, they may have disabilities which prevent them from using it as easily as others. Some people will appreciate correction, and take it as a learning experience, but it should always be done via private mail (never publicly), and you should tread carefully.

Finally, do use punctuation, and put spaces in the right places around it. Also, use capitalization properly (NO SHOUTING, please), and avoid using short forms such as dropping vowels, or substituting 4/for, u/you, r/are and so on. Such practices might make things easier for you, but it makes deciphering your writing that much harder for everyone else who you're expecting to read it. You can make an exception for smilies and common acronyms, such as OTOH, YMMV, BTW, and such, but don't overdo it, and be careful not to confuse your audience.

In short, to borrow from the informal guideline given in many network protocols: be conservative in what you produce and liberal in what you accept.



How long can I make my .sig?

Ideally it should be as short as possible while still getting across whatever you feel is important that it contain. The very best .sig of all is probably just a single line with your name and email address. Remember that while an ASCII graphic or witty saying may be cool the first time, it's going to be boring by the time someone sees it five times, and if it's large enough to attract the eye, will get annoying very quickly.

Unlike news, where space is relatively cheap, so larger sigs are more forgivable, and four lines or more is typically the norm, mailing lists feed into a person's private mailbox. Thus, each subscriber is paying for every byte you send them, so if too much of that is a .sig which contains no useful information, but is just repeated over and over, many people will quickly start to feel less favourably inclined towards your contributions to the list.



Should I ``crosspost'' to multiple lists?

Almost always, the answer to this is no. Most mailing lists are topically disjoint, and there is very little that is equally appropriate for posting to a number of them. It can also be annoying, as usually subscribers will get a copy of your message for each list they're on that you post to -- more than two or three of those and you can have a lot of annoyed people knocking on your mailbox.

That said, there may be some occasional instances where it would be appropriate to post to a number of lists at once. If you think this is the case, then you should probably contact the owner of each list and make sure that they agree before proceeding.



Can I post binaries, or other large files to the list?

Almost always, the answer to this is no. Mail sent to mailing lists is going into subscribers' private mailboxes, some of which are not set up to handle really large pieces of mail. Typically, you should put large files up on an ftp or web site, and then post an announcement to the list with instructions on how to access the files. If you do not have access to ftp or web facilities, contact the owner of the list, and she or he may be able to help you out.

There may be a few cases where posting such material would be appropriate, but you should definitely contact the list owner first and make sure you have his or her approval before doing so.



When replying, should I quote the previous message?

Most certainly. You should always provide some context to your replies so that people who may not have been following the thread closely, or who have other things on their minds will easily be able to determine what you're talking about.

However, when quoting, be very careful to edit the quoted sections down to the bare minimum of text needed to maintain the context for your reply. There is very little on a mailing list that is more annoying than paging through a few pages of quoted text only to read a few lines at the end. Also be careful that you clearly indicate what text you're quoting (as opposed to what you're writing), and if possible, cite the author of the original text.

If your mail program wants to attach the whole message you're replying to on the end of your replies, please do not let it do this if you can possibly avoid it. It is a good thing to include excerpts from previous messages with your replies to maintain a logical flow of discussion, but it is almost always a bad thing to include the entire text of a message being replied to, be it at the start or end of your reply.



Should I mail a copy to the person I'm replying to?

That depends, but usually the answer is no. Unlike news, where followups may take days to reach the original author, and may sometimes never make it at all, mail service is typically faster and more reliable. Also unlike news, private copies of postings to mailing lists will result in multiple copies arriving in the recipient's mailbox, rather than just one. Unless you have good reason to believe that the person needs your answer as soon as possible, then they'll probably thank you if you stick with just sending it to the list.



I've been insulted! How should I respond?

Ah, congratulations. You've never been properly welcomed to the net until you've been flamed. Your response can take a number of forms. The first and most important thing you should do is to take a break and cool off. Replies written in the heat of anger are seldom any better than the postings which inspire them. Revenge is a dish best served cold, as they say.

Now that you've cooled off, go back and consider the offending material again. If it's nothing but baseless lies and fabrications that no rational person would believe, then the best response is to completely ignore it. If it contains material that you would consider to be of a slanderous or threatening nature, then you may wish to forward a copy to the user's postmaster and request that they have a word with the individual about the proper use of the net.

If, on the other hand, the posting contains inaccuracies which you feel need to be addressed, then it is perfectly reasonable to send a followup message which does so. However, the ideal approach is to ignore any hysteria, and stick with the facts. Be reasonable and rational, point out your attacker's errors, and their attack will usually collapse around them. In particular, avoid any personal attacks on an individual's intelligence, age, character, etc. At the very least, if you cultivate a reputation of being level-headed, then most people will gladly give you the benefit of the doubt over a knee-jerk flamer.

The final option is to flame them in return, but be very careful when deciding on this course of action. Well crafted flames are a thing of beauty, but are extremely difficult to write. The ultimate goal of a flame should be that the recipient know deep in his or her heart that s/he has been terribly insulted, but s/he should not consciously be able to figure out why s/he feels this way.



My posting hasn't shown up on the list! What do I do?

Probably, just be patient. Sometimes the list server will be off-line, or be too busy with other things to deal with your mail right away. Also, some lists are restricted to posts by subscribers only, and if the address you post from does not match the one you're subscribed under, your posting may be delayed for approval by the list owner. If the list owner is away or busy, then it may be some time before your message gets approved.

If a few days go by with no sign of your post, then the next step should be to write the list owner and inquire if there's a problem. Include as much information as you can regarding what your original posting was about. If still nothing has happened after a week, and if your message is still relevant, then it's probably entirely reasonable to post it again. Mail is generally more reliable than news, but things still get lost occasionally.



I've been subscribed to the bounces list! What does this mean?

This means that your email account has, for at least a short period, been refusing to accept messages from the mailing list. This may happen because your mailbox has filled up (i.e. over quota), or it may be due to system problems at your site, or even network problems beyond local control. Every time a subscriber's mailbox starts bouncing mail, a copy of each posting to the list is returned to the list owner. Even if only a small percentage of addresses on a list are having problems at any one time, for a large and/or busy list this can add up to quite a bit of mail.

Some list owners will simply unsubscribe offending accounts from the list, while others will have the option of moving bouncing accounts to a separate list. Majordomo, in particular, supports a bounces list, to which bouncing addresses can be moved, and which will provide a daily reminder to addresses on the list that their status has changed. Included in these reminders are instructions on how to get off of the bounces list, and rejoin whatever list(s) you were originally on.



I'm not getting any mail from the list! What's wrong!

Well, most likely this simply means that no one is posting anything. If you've got something to say, then post it and see if you can start up the discussion again. Do not, however, send a ``test message'' to the list, as it's unlikely that all the subscribers want to receive such junk mail. It's perfectly reasonable for a list to be dormant for long periods between bursts of traffic, as not all topics can be interesting all the time.

On the other hand, it is also possible that you are no longer subscribed to the list, whether due to your mailbox bouncing for too long, or due to some other system error. The easiest way to determine if this is the case is simply to resubscribe to the list. If you're already on the list, then the list server should return a message stating as much; if not, then you're back on the list and the problem is solved.

The final possibility is that the list has died, whether this is due to the owner not paying his bills, just getting sick of the whole thing, or some other reason, who knows. In this situation, the best course of action is to attempt to contact the list owner and verify the problem. If it turns out that the list has been shut down on a permanent basis, then you may be able to obtain the old list of subscribers and restart the list yourself. If a full subscriber list is not available, then you'll have to contact everyone you knew from the list and decide where to go from there.



I've got a problem not answered here! What do I do?

Your best resource is the list owner. If you do not actually know who that is, for a list named wilma@mail.server.site, typically mail to either owner-wilma@mail.server.site or wilma-owner@mail.server.site will reach the list owner. If neither of these work, then contact postmaster@mail.server.site and inquire how to reach the owner of the list.



Brian Edmonds, August 12, 2004