Communicating Online, pt. 2, or, TOFU Bad

A: Top-posting.
Q: What is the most annoying thing in e-mail?
A: Because it messes up the order in which people normally read text.
Q: Why is top-posting such a bad thing?

Oh, that didn’t make much sense, without some context? Welcome to the world of TOFU: “Text Over, Fullquote Under”.

Now, I know I’m not the first person to write about this, and I’m sure I won’t be the last. But recently the number of friends and acquaintances using this confusing technique seems to have multiplied, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain why this is a bad thing, rather than just asserting it.

It all comes down to readability and efficiency. In any email message (or forum post, or other written correspondence) there are two possibilities: either there is context needed to understand the message, or there isn’t. Quoted text is included to provide that context. Now, if you need that context, then you’re going to want to read it before you read the new text. And if you can read the new text before you read the old, then it’s not very necessary for context, is it?

So, this means that appending quoted text to the end of your post is doing it wrong, no matter what. Either the reader needs to read the text you quoted, in which case, it should come first, before your reply. Or, the reader doesn’t need to read the text you quoted, in which case, it shouldn’t be there at all.

There are limited exceptions in the legal world, and a few other cases, where it is important to have a record of a conversation, but that record isn’t actually necessary to understand the current message. But, for general conversation and discussion, if you think a reader needs you to quote a previous message, start with the quoted text, then follow up with your own writing.

And trim your quotes. The inevitable complaint about quote followed by response is that the reader has to scroll past a screenful or more of quoted text to get to the new response. But rarely is the entire previous message needed for context — so quote selectively, just the parts that are most necessary to establish the context. Delete the rest. If it’s really important, someone can go back to the source message on a forum or email list, or to the sent copy of their original message, or, if all else fails, ask you to provide more context. But, given judicious quoting, this should very rarely be an issue, and yet you can probably trim out 90% of most messages you’re replying to.

So, please, be considerate of your readers and make it as easy as possible to read what you wrote. Quote first, if at all, then respond.

Footnote: the genesis of TOFU seems to be MS Outlook. Both my own recollection and Wikipedia concur that it was one of, if not the, first email client to make that behavior the default. Yet another case of Microsoft making a break with established convention without thinking through the consequences.

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