Conversational Norms On The Net

Read at your own risk

This document dates from the early web period, and is kept for archival purposes only. It is no longer updated, and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate.
  1. The Word Made Flesh
  2. Show Some Emotion!

There are ways to talk that have evolved on the net. Most of them make it easier to understand what’s showing up on your computer screen.

Provide Context: Reply And Summarize

Discussions can last for a long time. In the real world, discussions take place in real time, and everyone present knows who said what. On the Internet, discussions take place over long periods of time, and not everyone knows everyone else. It becomes necessary to point out, when you’re saying something, just what it is that you’re replying to.

When you reply to electronic mail or to a Usenet news article (yes, you get to reply to news articles! Nothing on the net is one-way… at least, nothing worthwhile), when you reply to someone else’s message, what they said gets marked with a greater-than symbol. Here’s an example:

Jerry Stratton ( said:
>Look, this is either an open list or it isn’t. It
>doesn’t make any sense to congratulate StarNINE for
>providing an open list, on the one hand, and in the
>next paragraph flame someone else for mentioning a
>competitor’s product.

True, but this was more than just a “mention”. It
was a commercial posting, and those *should* go
through the moderator before being posted to
the list as a whole.

>If it *isn’t* open, I’ll be happy to start up a
>mailing list for discussing general web-Mac
>publishing issues.

We might need one in the future. I’ve heard that
the name of this list is changing from “MacHTTP”
to “WebSTAR”, which presumably would mean it’s
becoming a proprietary discussion.


Everything that “Jerry Stratton” said has a single greater-than symbol next to it. This is called quoting. Steve is quoting Jerry. Anyone coming into the discussion at this point doesn’t have to go out and look for Jerry’s message before understanding Steve’s. The important parts are included in Steve’s message.

What happens if more than one person’s comments need to be included? Let’s take a look at a reply to Steve’s message.

Steve Spear ( said:
>Jerry Stratton ( said:
>>Look, this is either an open list or it isn’t.

I don’t particularly think it *is* an open list.

>>next paragraph flame someone else for mentioning a
>>competitor’s product.
>True, but this was more than just a “mention”. It
>was a commercial posting, and those *should* go
>through the moderator before being posted to
>the list as a whole.

Says who? I’ll agree that it’s a nice thing to do,
but I haven’t seen any mention of that requirement
in the four months since I’ve been a member. It’s
a great idea, but it needs to be made clear if
we expect anyone to follow it.


Mary has just jumped into the conversation, and she’s responding to statements by Jerry and statements by Steve. This time, Steve’s statements have a single greater-than symbol marking them. Jerry’s have two greater-than symbols. Steve’s statements are one message back, and Jerry’s are two messages back.

This format carries two important pieces of information. Besides telling us who said what, it also tells us when they said it. I can tell from Mary’s message that she’s replying to Steve, and I can also see that Steve was originally replying to Jerry. When you start seeing messages with parts of the discussion going two, three, or more messages back, the order in which things were said becomes important.

You should keep the number of lines you’re replying to down to two to five, as in the messages above. Most of your message should be what you have to add. (If you only have one line to add, no one cares. Really. Send it to the individual, rather than the entire group.)

Sometimes, however, you’ll need to include a large amount of the previous message. In this case, rather than quoting the entire message, summarize the message as you understood it. Often, your summary is simply deleting the text of a well known document or collection of facts. Make sure it’s clear that you’re summarizing rather than quoting. For example:

Jerry Stratton ( said:
>[Text of U.S. constitution deleted.]

So? Who cares what a bunch of atheists in the eighteenth
century said?

Summations are often placed inside square brackets like that. Summations really aren’t commonly used: usually, it’s better to quote the other person exactly. I’d say that summations are used to flame as often as they’re used for anything else.

Steve Spear ( said:
>[Meaningless drivel deleted.]

Are you *ever* going to rent a functioning brain?

Conversational Norms On The Net: Flaming

So now that we’ve seen one, what’s a flame? It’s a verb and a noun, for the most part. A flame is an insulting or caustic post. When you flame someone, you’re replying to a message of theirs with derision. Flaming is an art, and should be approached as such. Never casually flame anyone unless you’re ready to be casually flamed in return. The above example of a flame is quite poor. Here’s a better one, courtesy Jeff Swanson of Usenet:

In the Serengeti, there is a small outcropping of rock which conceals a rich oasis. Tucked away, hidden from the burning sun by a stone ceiling, is a small pool of fresh water, and in this pool grow clues by the moist thousands. See your travel agent.

There are no rules when it comes to flames. Except possibly: avoid breaking the law. The best flames can be found on Usenet, although no discussion is safe. Listen to mother, and wear your asbestos underwear.

Laying the Page

No, this section has nothing to do with Washington, D.C.

Many people find computers harder to read than paper. There’s just no pleasing some people, is there? Some idiots think that just because they don’t have the time to learn Unix programming, we should cater to their every whim.

You should try to make your messages easy to view on computer screens. Standard paper layout techniques won’t always apply. The easiest thing to do is to re-read your messages before you send them, and make sure they’re easy to read. If they aren’t, fix ‘em. Here are a couple of hints:

1. Keep your paragraphs short.

2. Put an extra space between paragraphs to break ‘em up.

3. Keep your lines less than seventy-five letters long!

Many mail readers are designed around eighty-character lines. If any of your lines are longer than this, they’ll look ugly. You have to keep them shorter than seventy-five letters in case someone actually finds your message interesting, and “quotes” you: quoting adds a character to your lines.

Personally, I prefer to keep my lines down to about sixty-five characters. Or half a gram. However, this is becoming less and less important, as more and more software is able to invisibly wrap lines for you. Be careful when quoting unwrapped text, however. You should be able to find a “wrap” menu item that will preserve greater than symbols correctly. The following is wrong:

Mary Kotter ( said:
>I thought that _Sixth Sense_ was a great movie except for its ending, which insults the intelligence of the viewer.

I disagree. I didn’t realize that Bruce was a ghost until the flashback sequence.

It is wrong because it implies that Mary Kotter said “I thought that _Sixth Sense_ was a great movie except”, and that I am replying with “for its ending, which insults the…”. The correct format is:

Mary Kotter ( said:
>I thought that _Sixth Sense_ was a great movie except
>for its ending, which insults the intelligence of the

I disagree. I didn’t realize that Bruce was a ghost until the flashback sequence.

What Mary said and what I’m replying are now more obvious. Look in your “edit” menu and see if you have a menu item for “wrapping” or “rewrapping” text.

Conversational Norms On The Net: Signatures

Everyone needs a signature. Everyone wants a signature. People even like reading signatures. But it helps if you’re creative, literate, and a good writer. If you aren’t, steal from someone else who is.

Signatures come at the end of messages, like signatures in paper letters. How you write your signature on paper says something about you, and what you put into your signature in e-mail also says something about you. Electronic mail signatures usually look something like:

Your Name
A disgustingly revealing quote.

You may or may not want to tailor your quotes to your audience. A quote from Thomas Jefferson, for example, probably wouldn’t be appropriate for the CHRISTIAN-L mailing list.

Keep your quotes short: four lines is a good bet. People don’t want to read the same 40-line quote from “War and Peace” every single time you send your e-mail out.

Conversational Norms On The Net: Spoilers

If you take part in review discussions—reviews of movies, plays, and books—you’ll come across spoiler warnings. This means that the person writing the message is about to talk about something important that happens in the movie, play, or book. And if you haven’t already seen or read the item in discussion, reading the rest of the message may spoil your enjoyment of it—so don’t read it until you’ve seen the movie, play, or read the book.

Usually, the “spoiler warning” is followed by a bunch of blank lines, or by a “^L”. The “^L” (control-L) tells Unix computers not to show the rest of the article until the reader presses the space bar. If you aren’t using Unix when you’re reading the message, it’s a toss-up whether or not your software will understand and hide the spoiler from you. Most good software will.

You should be careful about spoiling other people’s enjoyment, and add your own “spoiler warning”, followed by control-L or a page full of blank lines, when you tell people how the butler done it.

  1. The Word Made Flesh
  2. Show Some Emotion!