I don't remember now who it was that was trying to write a 'how to use mail'
document for their users, but I have a suggestion.

A lot of the time, what you really want is to get rid of all of the quoted
material altogether.  A bit of usenet history is of interest here.  In
the very old days, we didn't have a way to quote any mail at all.  We didn't
have threads, either.

A small number of people could not, therefore be held accountable for what
they had actually said, as they kept saying that what they had said was
something different.  So you would get a hold of the old piece of mail,
yank out the appropriate text, and say -- look here, you cannot hide, this
is what you said and here it is!

This happened often enough that several of us decided that it would be a
good idea to put quoting into the mail and news readers we were using at
the time.  And I am one of the people who did so.  And it made certain
things infinitely more convenient.

And this turned out to be a mixed blessing.  Whereas before people
would say:  XXX has made a series of interesting proposals, but he has
misunderstood RFC Blah Blah Blah where we are mandated to do This_Thing
and provide Obnoxious_Headers X Y and Z.  So all of his proposals are
moot unless we can get a new RFC to supercede Blah Blah Blah, with
quoting it became all too easy to rip XXXs proposal to shreds, point by
point, instead of just nailing it once, on the main point.

The problem with the approach is that, for poor old XXX the effect went
from 'you need to read RFC Blah Blah Blah again, because you have
misunderstood it -- or didn't know that it existed and was relevant' to

You're Wrong.
and You're Wrong here as well.
And here.
And here.
Because you are an Idiot.

This sort of point-by-point dressing down really had only one counterpart
in face-to-face communication -- where a Superior dresses down a Subordinate,
in front of an audience.  The main purpose of such things has nothing to
do with the Subordinate that got the dressing down, but everything to do
with maintaining the Superior's authority and making the audience quiver
in their boots (while thanking God that they weren't getting the chewing

So, unsurprisingly, people who had made tiny errors in understanding or
interpretation flipped right out at what they perceived as bucket-loads
of nitpicking contempt hurled at them for no particularly good reason,
by a person whose authority they didn't recognise.  It was also widely
condemned as a way to impose a hierarchical structure on something that
had hitherto been working in a rather flat, equalitarian manner.  And
it had a chilling effect on whether people who were young, new and trying
to learn things were willing to post their current thoughts on a matter.

On several mailing lists I have been members of for years civility only
returned when we point blank banned this form of point by point

So, if you are writing such a document, insist that people understand
that they only have to win an argument once.  There are no bonus points
awarded for overkill. :)

Laura Creighton

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