SBE Chapter 37
SBE Chapter 37
April 20, 2021  

Listserver Netiquette

Good email manners are as important as good social skills. As email has developed quickly, many people aren't aware of the small subtleties that have developed in email-based communications. This guide isn't a list of commandments, it's just a partial list of social expectations. People won't (usually) harass you if you violate netiquette.

There are many types of discussion lists:

  • Managed: Often moderated, these have a list manager who has the job of approving or blocking certain posts or posters.
  • Unmanaged: Usually small, these depend on the individuals to be diligent in staying on topic.
  • Ad Hoc: Just groups of folks in the "to" and "cc" fields.

Some lists are not very tolerant of violations. If it's a managed list, the remedy is for the manager to ask for compliance privately (and nicely). If the violations continue, the list manager will usually delete you from the list. If this happens to you, a polite letter to the list manager will usually get you reinstated. The role of the list manager is to make the vast majority of the subscribers happy; losing subscribers is a last resort. If it's unmanaged, it's more difficult, as just like in "real life," it's considered rude to correct people for netiquette violations. Habitual offenders of netiquette will typically wind up in people's "bozo" filters.

Don't use obscure "insider" abbreviations or obscure smilies
Most people know LOL (laughing out loud), TIA (thanks in advance), ROTFL (rolling on the floor laughing), FWIW (for what it's worth), IMHO (in my humble opinion), BTW (by the way). But don't assume that everyone knows them.

Asking a question of one person - and cc'ing others
If your message can be answered by one person, cc'ing others is considered bad netiquette. Are you doing it because you don't know who has the correct answer - and therefore asking/interrupting a zillion folks for your convenience? Are you tired of "Bob" ignoring your emails and you believe if you cc others that Bob will be bullied into replying? Either reason may feel valid to you - but interrupting others for your personal convenience is just not cool.

Look your best
Without visual cues, people will view your grammar, spelling, and punctuation just as people view your attire and hygiene. Be sure your text is clear and logical without misspellings. But remember that it's possible to write a paragraph that contains no errors in grammar or spelling, but still makes no sense. If you have language difficulties, compose offline and use your word processor's spell/grammar checker. If English is not your first language, just do your best. Others will respect your efforts.

Volume of email
Recognize that many people get 100+ emails a day. It's therefore considered rude to pack people's email boxes with unimportant materials.

Large attachments
Sending unsolicited attachments over 1mb can cause email boxes to reach their maximum, thus bouncing other emails. Keep your attachments small, or use a file sharing service.

Is this email legal? Breaking the law is bad netiquette. If you're tempted to do something that's illegal, chances are it's also bad netiquette. This applies to copyright, forgery, slander, defamation, threats of violence, and advocating violence.

Should I really say that?
Never say anything in an email that you don't want to see in tomorrow morning's newspaper.

Who will receive my email?
In Real Life, one would never publicly say something nasty without first looking up to see if the object of your criticism is in front of you. But people often reply to emails without checking who's in the cc line. This doesn't only apply to criticism - it also applies to company secrets, private matters, and privileged communications.

Forwarding something you got via email
NEVER NEVER NEVER pass along email that was sent to you privately.
The only is exception would be email sent by a public official or office and done so IN AN OFFICIAL CAPACITY. It is wrong to post a private source's email address without their permission. Giving credit to your private source ("from 'M' who works in the White House") is good form - but NOT their whole email address. Your error can cost someone their job - or worse.

What about passing along a message without the person's name?
It's often necessary to pass along messages, like valid criticisms. However, unless the original author requests this his/her email be shared, remove the email address.

Plagiarism is wrong
If you pass along someone else's post as your own, you are plagiarizing. Briefly credit your source. Don't list their entire email address unless they've posted it to this group (see above) or they are a public official. If someone sends you an unattributed lengthy and beautifully written 'column', consider doing a quick web search before posting it. You may find that it was written by a columnist and has copyright protection.

NEVER use racial, ethnic, or gender slurs -- even in jest.
Use of slurs needlessly offends people - whether or not they're a member of the group you've insulted.

Don't use ALL CAPS
All-caps translates as SHOUTING. To emphasize a word or phrase, enclose it with *asterisks*.

Adhere to the same high standards (or higher) of behavior online that you follow in real life.
In real life, most people are fairly polite and law abiding. The same rules of behavior are expected on any list.

Quoting messages
It is bad netiquette, for example, to quote a 50 line message with only a few words of original text. It is also bad form to fail to quote a message on which you are commenting. And lastly, it is bad form to delete sections or text from a message to which you are responding - unless you use the device [snip], [cut], [text deleted], an ellipsis (...) or something like that.

Don't use vague subjects
Use descriptive and specific subject lines. This helps others decide whether your particular words of wisdom relate to a topic they care about.

Know what you're talking about and make sense
Pay attention to the content of your writing. Be sure you know what you're talking about -- when you see yourself writing "it's my understanding that" or "I believe it's the case," ask yourself whether you really want to post this note before checking your facts. You can always ask "is it true that…?"

Adding names
Never add people to a mailing list without their consent. Not only is this a violation of netiquette, it is a violation of your ISP's Acceptable Use Policy and could wind up having your account revoked.

Adding recipients to an ongoing discussion
If you're in the midst of a discussion with a handful of individuals, adding names of people outside the company, club, school, or social circle is bad netiquette. If/when you do add someone, note it at the beginning of the email, like "I've added Bob to this discussion." Why? Because someone could accidentally say something nasty about Bob, not realizing that you put in his name.

More on adding names
If the list is 'ad-hoc' (just a bunch of folks in the "to" and "cc" fields), it is generally bad netiquette to add names to the distribution during discussions. This could be for a variety of reasons: perhaps somebody said something unkind, perhaps something confidential is being discussed. Adding names in this way can be done IF it's a generic discussion within a company AND everyone agrees that it's okay to widen the circle AND you check the replies that you're forwarding to be sure that nobody said anything unkind AND nobody has placed a "do not forward" note in their message.

Deleting Names
If you're a list manager (or part of an ad-hoc list), and someone on the list asks to be deleted, you must be vigilant in removing their name. If your ISP receives a bonafide complaint that you have violated this, you could very likely have your email account revoked.

Divulging Email Addresses
Most listservs block the retrieval of the subscribers' individual emails. If they allow it, spamming the list for an off-topic purpose is considered very poor manners. Don't ask the list manager to supply you with the subscriber list.

Post on Topic
Lists are very specific about what subjects are and are not appropriate, and posting an irrelevant message is considered rude. If your list is one that deals in painting technique, it is most likely considered improper to use it to sell your equipment, discuss gallery openings, or anything else that the group is not 100% on topic for the group.

Avoid Lengthy Intros or Sigs
(A sig is the stuff that people automatically insert at the end of their email.) Intros and lengthy sigs are bad netiquette. While possibly funny the first time, it can result in people skipping your post. Think of it like this... imagine how tedious it would be if *every* comment someone made in a live conversation were prefaced with a lengthy introduction and ended with a lengthy sig?

Think before you speak (lurk before you post)
If you don't, the readers will probably think you are goofy, stupid, and/or thoughtless, not to mention all kinds of other nasty things. Before you post, read some others' messages. Get a sense of who the people are. Look to see if information you're about to post has just been posted by someone else. Then go ahead and post.

Respect the culture
Most posters to discussion groups look down on those with poor manners. Always be civil, don't use profanity. Don't be lewd, abrasive, argumentative, or rude. Don't dictate, be pushy, or give orders.

Don't crosspost
Crossposting to more than one list is usually seen as improper.

Top post? Bottom post?
Many techie groups will expect you to bottom post - placing your reply at the END of the message. Non-geeky groups probably won't care. Some will expect you to reply line-by-line. Just do what everyone else does in the group and you'll be fine.

Should you respond to the group or directly to the author?
If you have a comment intended for one person, tell them via private email. Generally speaking, unless it concerns the entire group, you should reply ONLY to the author. This is not only a netiquette issue, it also helps cut down on email traffic.

Don't post personal messages
If you have a message for one or two posters, use private email.

What if their address is bogus or munged?
Some people do not want to get unsolicited email and therefore put a spam blocker in their address. This may look like this "" In most cases, just removing the nospam will provide you with the correct address. Some others deliberately provide bogus addresses. This can be for a variety of reasons, perhaps they are not permitted to receive email (at work, for example). Even if this is the case, posting personal messages is still a violation of netiquette; having a bogus address is not.

Respect others' religious beliefs and culture
Recognize that others have religious and personal beliefs which may differ from yours.

Don't post flame-bait. Don't publicly flame
Keeping on topic to a list also means refraining from launching personal attacks against readers or the moderators of the group. Furthermore, participation in or attempts to incite a flame war is also considered a violation of netiquette. While "flaming" (publicly berating) is acceptable in some groups, it is not accepted in most. Be pleasant and polite. Don't be confrontational for the sake of confrontation. Don't harass someone publicly (or perhaps even privately) over a difference in opinion.

Don't swear
An email list is not your personal toilet. Many people are offended by swearing. If you feel that cursing in some form is required and potentially accepted, it's preferable to use amusing euphemisms like "heck" or "darn". You may also use the classic asterisk filler -- for example, s***. And everyone will know exactly what you mean.

Don't abuse your power
Some people in the internet have more "power" than others. Knowing more than others, having a higher level of admin/superuser privelages, or having more power in any respect than they do, does not give you the right to use that power. If you disagree with someone, it is Very Bad netiquette to drop them from a list, forge their header, complain to their ISP, flame them, contact their boss, post their name and home address, or place them on emailing lists. If you are an admin, excommunicating somone should be a last resort, and never done so without notifying the individual. If you really need to tell them how angry you are, email them. Or better yet, take a deep breath and forget about it.

Be forgiving of other people's mistakes
If someone makes a spelling or grammatical error, errs in the title of a song, misstates a minor "fact", or makes some other typo or error, don't post just to correct them. If you feel you must educate people, do it by private email. Everyone makes mistakes -- be kind about it. Having knowledge doesn't give you license to correct everyone else. Assume they just don't know any better, and never be arrogant or self-righteous about it. Pointing out a netiquette violation is, in itself, an example of poor netiquette!

How to correct people
Use Real Life as an example. One would never grab the microphone at an event simply to inform your audience that Bob ate his entree with the salad fork (gasp!). After you've read the above paragraph ("Be forgiving...") and feel that you MUST correct someone else's seemingly bad manners, ask the moderator or list owner to do it. And if there is none, and you still must correct Bob for this terrible transgression, do it privately. Or better yet, don't.

Use of the word "private"
Although the rules of netiquette state that the default status of an email is "private" (unless the sender specifically states otherwise) some emails are more private than others. If someone marks an email as "private," be sure to respect his/her wishes, even if you don't see anything very sensitive.

Don't post questions to the list managers
It's okay to ask the list managers questions. It's not okay to *post* these questions. Use private email to ask the questions.

Don't harass the managers
If you disagree with a list manager's decision, bring it up in the appropriate forum. It is perfectly acceptable to question a decision. List management is not omniscience nor possessing Solomon-esque judgement capabilities. It is volunteering to do one's best. The workload in managing a list is a significant commitment of one's time. Please be nice to them, they're human and they do make mistakes.

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