Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Context, please!

Chess masters will sometimes play chess against a dozen or more competitors at once, walking from board to board and making a move. The way they do this isn’t to remember the games, but to look at the board, and make a decent (to a master) move each time. They look at the board, get all the information they need, and act. Remember that as context as you read the rest of this post.

So over the past few months, I’ve been noticing more and more people cutting the context out of their email, and replying in a way which can be read on a single screen. This is nice. Concise replies are often good. But where’s the context? Why are you removing all the conversation which happened before? I get and send a lot of email. I send roughly 15-20 messages a day from my personal account, and probably 30-50 a day at work. How many I get is a little hard to count because of all the spam, but it’s probably around the same into my inboxes.

The context of a conversation helps me remember what’s being said, and why. (This, incidentally, is why top-posting is good for short conversations that stay short, and bad for long ones.)

For example, I’m trying to set up an appointment to talk to a former co-worker about some stuff. I haven’t added him to my IM address book, and in his response agreeing on a time, he cut that information. Not only that, there was effort involved in cutting it. Maybe it’s only 1 or 2 clicks, or 10-15 characters of typing to find the rest of the conversation, but that’s still more work than having it all right there.

So please, think about context when you send email. Just like chess masters can see the board, let your co-respondent see what you’re responding to.

If you do, you’ll get more complete and useful responses faster. It’s in your best interest. That’s not just with me. Think about the usability of what you send to people–it pays off.

7 comments on "Context, please!"

  • kurt wismer says:

    your chess master analogy doesn’t really do your plea justice, as one could easily say that the chess master doesn’t care about what the board looked like before, he only cares about what it looks like right now – so in email you shouldn’t care about what was being discussed before but only about what is being discussed right now…
    if i don’t use a piece of information sent to me when it’s originally sent then i fully expect to have to data-mine my mail archive to get it and i’m ok with that…
    it probably comes down to personal taste, but there are those of us who follow RFC1855 (more or less), and then there are those who think top posting is ok or that quoting should be more liberal… as much as i can’t stand top posting and excessive quoting, though, i won’t be holding my breath waiting for other people to stop doing it…

  • Walter says:

    Snipping context, however, does add to the chaos.

  • Rich Kulawiec says:

    Top-posting, like full-quoting or HTML markup, is used only by rude, ignorant newbies. Anyone using a quality mail reader and observing basic standards of netiquette should be able to read and write email that is concise, automatically threaded, and contains enough in-line context to be comprehensible — but no more. Not only is excessive quoting wasteful of system and network resources, but it wastes human resources — and it shows disrespect for the recipient(s).

  • Lyger says:

    I don’t mind quoting full context when needed, but MAN, people should at least trim off excessive sig files, disclaimers, and email list footers… 😉
    p.s. post approved!

  • You are right that excessive pruning may kill the exchange, but that doesn’t mean you should never prune. Long emails often contain embarrasing stuff at the end, which leak internal discussions to other departments or companies, because people are too lazy to prune. The correct answer is to replace email with proper collaboration software.

  • Timothy Knox says:

    Top-posting will not go away so long as Outlook (the dominant email client) makes that not only the default, but practically impossible to avoid. The best criticism I ever saw on the subject was one man’s .sig quote:
    A: Because it disrupts the normal flow of conversation.
    Q: Why is top-posting a bad idea.

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