How to participate in an e-mail forum

© 2006-2011 Paul Cooijmans

Introduction

This self-study course was originally written to achieve and maintain an atmosphere of civility and order on the Glia Society's electronic mail fora. E-mail is a volatile medium, and a forum where dozens or hundreds are permanently allowed to write and reply without restriction is downright explosive and may even in a high-I.Q. environment degenerate to a repulsive state of negativity and chaos. A causal factor in this is the "easy" nature of e-mail; it takes almost no effort to click on "Reply", type one or two words, and send off the "message" thus "created". Therefore on an e-mail forum, those with the lowest ability and least inclined to put in effort are able and tend to rise to the surface and become the "stars" of the forum, while the conscientious and able turn away in disgust. A small minority inclined to misbehave can spoil it for the rest.

One approach to this is to instate and maintain rules, even though those are only needed for that tiny group. Another is education. Some forms of undesirable behaviour on fora are caused by lack of e-mail communication skills, or by not knowing or understanding why certain rules of conduct are necessary. This course instructs in civilized forum participation and explains why certain ways of doing things are desirable or required in this type of mass communication.

Lesson 1 — Deciding to write a message

Each message you send uses up an amount of time and attention of a large number of readers. And, it consumes an amount of energy in all of the involved computers, servers, routers et cetera, which brings with it a corresponding emission of pollutants into the atmosphere, such as sulphur and nitrogen oxides, heavy metals, and more. So naturally you ask yourself if you really have something to say to this audience; if you have a reason to send the message you are thinking of sending. Only if the answer is "yes" you may begin to write the message.

Also, you make certain you are not in a state of strong negative emotion; messages written and sent thus tend to evoke similar emotions in many who read them, and this is known to result in a violent cascade of very unpleasant messages. In other words, "count to ten".

Lesson 2 — Composing the message

Take the time and exert some effort to arrive at a well-formulated, concise, clear, understandable message. Do not waste the readers' time with long, vague and/or empty rambling, or with large numbers of writing errors, or with nonsense disguised as profound enigmatic wisdom. Do not quickly send off something in seconds.

When you think you are finished, reread the message and correct possible errors — do not just rely on a software spelchecker — and improve, sharpen, formulations that are still unclear. Remove superfluous passages. Think of the man who wrote at the bottom of his letter, "Sorry to write such a long letter; I had no time to write a shorter one." To write one paragraph of clear intelligible text takes more time than to write six pages of sloppy rambling. A typical good writer needs a full working day to write one page — say 400 words — of readable text.

Well-written messages save much time and annoyance because they are so much easier and quicker to read. The time you might think to gain by writing fast and sending off without checking is delusional; in the end, carefully composed messages are the most time-efficient for the group as a whole. More information is shared in less time, with less irritation, and in fewer messages. The nightmare scenario is that of an e-mail forum with hundreds of messages a day; even clicking them away unread is a sad waste of time, let alone that one would have to read them!

To make this even more clear: Sloppy messages are quick to write and save one person — the writer — some time, but are slow and annoying to read so waste much time and cause much annoyance in many. Well-composed messages take one person — the writer — some more time, but are quick and pleasant to read so save many persons much time and annoyance. Obviously, the latter is the way to go, while the first is the way of parasites, of leeches. The overall effect is fewer messages and higher quality.

Lesson 3 — The "From:" field

What is displayed in the "From:" field of your messages depends on what you filled in in the account information of your e-mail program. Normally this is your name, sometimes the e-mail address. Both are acceptable; what matters is that this field identifies you so that readers know who you are. It is less desirable to use this field to identify a particular e-mail account to yourself with words like "work" or "home", because then it appears to readers as if your name is "work" or "home".

If for some reason this field does not identify you, it is important to always put your name in the body of the message itself so that readers will know who you are.

Lesson 4 — The subject line

This field contains one or a few words representing the subject of the message. It does not contain actual message content, such as a complete sentence or question. Content belongs in the body of the message.

When replying to a message this field is left as it is only when the reply indeed deals with the subject in question. When the "reply" is really the start of another subject, the subject line must be changed to reflect the new subject. This enables readers to decide whether or not to read a message based on its subject line; some readers may wish to delete messages on topics they are not interested in.

Lesson 5 — The body

To save space one gets straight down to business and leaves out salutations like "Dear..." in regular forum messages.

While personal writing styles differ, everyone needs to employ capitalization, punctuation, and paragraphs to structure the message text. At the bottom should be one's name, although this may be left out if the "From:" field contains that name.

Additional signature blocks that appear under every message one sends, such as mottos, quotations of famous persons, company information and the like, are annoying for the reader who has to see or scroll over them with each message from that person. Though not strictly forbidden, one should ask oneself: Do I really wish to irritate a large number of readers time and time again with something they have seen so often already?

Lesson 6 — Capitalization

Capitals are the characters that appear when one holds a <Shift> key down while typing a letter. That may actually take some practice, but once mastery of this rare and sought-after motor skill has been reached it will prevent one from appearing an illiterate imbecile. It is done for the first letter of every sentence, the first letter of first, last and middle names, the word "I", and letters of some abbreviations or acronyms.

Lesson 7 — Punctuation and paragraphs

A large solid block of text is intimidating and many will not even begin to read it. Therefore one creates structure by inserting pauses. The following pauses, listed from short to long, are usable in forum messages:

Lesson 8 — Quoting

When replying to a forum message it is best to quote the passage one is reacting to. This quotation must be clearly distinguishable from the reply. The precise method used to separate reply from quotation is a matter of taste, but in any case must there be whitespace between the two or else the reply will at first sight be seen as part of the quotation and not read.

When replying to a short message that does not contain any quotations itself, one may include the full message at the bottom and write one's reply on top. In all other cases, one must copy and paste the passage one is replying to to the top of one's message and write the reply thereunder. The rest of the original message must be deleted in such cases.

In almost no case may one include an entire original message which itself contains quotations. The ultimate nightmare is that of a freight-train-length message consisting solely of quotations of quotations of quotations of... , with perhaps — or not even, in the most regrettable cases — one or two new lines of text added somewhere, carefully buried by the sender under layer upon layer of quotations. Think not only of the great annoyance and wasted time of hundreds of receivers, but also of the extra energy consumption and environmental pollution thus caused.

Lesson 9 — Questions

Asking a question to the forum is generally a safe thing to do.

Asking a question to an individual member of the forum, on the forum, is a different matter. It means requiring that member to answer in public; to do a public interview as it were. No one can be required to answer questions in public without having agreed to do so. So when such a question is asked, the member in question may ignore it, may answer it via private correspondence with the asker, or may still answer it on the forum as a favour.

Better is, for the asker, to first decide if the question is really a private one, or one that is of interest to the forum. In the first case the question should be asked via private correspondence. In the second case the asker should first ask if the member in question agrees to answering on the forum. Even a full interview can be done that way before the forum, provided the interviewee has agreed.

Lesson 10 — Representing someone's ideas

On occasion one may wish to discuss ideas that one of the forum members has publicly expressed elsewhere. In such a case one should always start out by quoting those ideas carefully, respecting their context. That is, one should not quote only a fragment that suits a point one is trying to make while leaving out the rest of the passage that does not suit the point one is trying to make but further qualifies the fragment. One must represent the ideas correctly.

It must be avoided to reformulate the ideas in one's own words, as that carries with it the risk of misrepresenting those ideas. If one does not have the ideas as originally expressed at one's disposal, it is better to ask the author to re-express them than to attempt this oneself. It is very bad to misrepresent someone's ideas because a wrong impression of that person is then being created which will be hard to impossible to correct. The author may not always be able to interfere and set things straight at once, and besides, no forum member can be required to correct errors made by others. For if that were the case, one could potentially — and actually — rob someone of all one's time and energy by constantly misrepresenting one's ideas and writing errors about one.

If one is not able to correctly represent the other's ideas, than one should not try to represent them at all.

Lesson 11 — Relevance of information

When taking part in an exchange on a particular topic, one should take care to write things with specific relevance to that topic. The information-to-noise ratio of messages should be high with regard to the topic at hand. Although a single off-topic message does little harm on its own, repeated off-topic messages spoil or sabotage the discussion, and eventually the forum itself.

For clarity, here are examples of irrelevant, off-topic, messages:

Especially the latter category is deceptive, as there are always a few participants who interpret such "inkblot" material as pertaining to the current discussion, so that it appears as if the sender has produced a genuine message. And through this deceptiveness the situation can linger on, slowly but surely tearing down the coherence of forum communication. Typical Rorschach/Barnum generalities are quotations of famous persons, zen koans, fragments from literature and poetry, and personal mottos. Such material is wholly free and without intellectual or creative merit on the side of the sender. Yet it can be submitted to any discussion on any forum in the world and there will always be one or two who read relevance to the current topic into it through phenomena like apophenia, pareidolia and hineininterpretrieren.

The repeated sending of off-topic material is a form of passive-aggressive resistance, and highly destructive in the long term. Make no mistake, repetitive off-topic senders are purposely sabotaging the forum while superficially seeming kind, sympathetic, and profound, and while making the one or two brave souls who dare criticize their behaviour seem pedants, kill-joys, or soup nazis.

Lesson 12 — Sharing ideas and viewpoints

It is normal that individual views on any topic differ. Some have the habit, or even Pavlovian reflex, to, when confronted with an idea that differs from their own, at once and without allowing time for the idea to "sink in" and be processed, start to "discuss", "convince", "disagree", "persuade", "debate", "criticize", et cetera. This is not always pleasant for the atmosphere, and actually hinders the spontaneous sharing of diverse viewpoints. It may have to do with the fact that many of us have been raised, educated, with the doctrine that one must always have an "opinion" on everything, that one must always make oneself known, that one must learn to debate, convince and persuade, that the act of disagreeing is more important than the topic itself, and that to have the last word is more important than to be right. And for some, that kind of behaviour fits their personality well to begin with.

However, it can be very liberating, and makes for a more civilized atmosphere, to accept that opinions differ and allow others to express their views without immediately raging in and provoking them into a "discussion". Such an approach allows a greater diversity of ideas to be shared, for in an environment where every new idea is subject to "discussion" many will not even begin to make themselves known. If an idea is to be discussed in depth, this is perhaps better done in a special group dedicated to the topic in question, or after mutual agreement to discuss, or in private communication. In a civilized environment where one exercises constraint in replying to another's ideas, more participants will feel free to express their views; such an approach is sometimes called "comparition", as opposed to "discussion".

Epilogue

Upon successful completion of this course you will be a skilled forum member and an asset to any civilized electronic mail forum. Congratulations!