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MoreOn: Attempts at establishing harmful conventions

2004-11-30 17:16:35

Distinguished and revered colleagues,

I think we need to distinguish between human-level conventions and protocol elements. Any "harmfulness" in the former is not something that can be addressed technically.

When you choose the "Reply" function in your MUA, and it gives you a window in which the subject has been initialized to "Re: <old subject>," this is at best a "helpful suggestion" from your MUA, because you can always change it. In the case of this particular message, for example, I decided to change it to "MoreOn" and no harm was done, unless someone chose to regard it as an insulting pun. (And don't tell me that your mail reader needs "Re:" for message threading, because if your MUA can't get thread info from the In-Reply-To field, it isn't trying hard enough.)

Ultimately, the user-editability of "Subject" makes it almost valueless as a machine-usable protocol, but highly valuable for interpersonal conventions. We should not be surprised, however, if different conventions arise among different subcultures, perhaps with subtly different semantics. In fact, this happens all the time -- some email communities already have informal but quite complex norms for making their subjects "more useful" at the human level. (I put "more useful" in quotes because they aren't always more useful -- at IBM, confidential messages often start with an "IBM Confidential and Proprietary" prefix that is so long as to eclipse all information in the subject, but it is a convention which is almost mandatory within the company.) This is not a problem of protocol design -- it is simply a reality of evolving human norms and etiquette.

Thus, if you want to put data into a message that is intended to convey meaning reliably to a piece of software, you shouldn't put it in the Subject field. Arguing over the "right" way to do "Re:" or "Fwd:" or "[ietf-822]" is about as technically useful as arguing over the right greeting or salutation for an email message, because ultimately the user controls it, not the software. I have the right to greet you all as "distinguished and revered colleagues" if I'm so inclined, right?



On Nov 30, 2004, at 6:27 PM, Keith Moore wrote:

Bruce Lilly writes:

I do think there's a significant difference between conventions for the
Subject field that the message author (or the author's MUA) uses to
indicate information about the content, and alterations to the Subject
field that are done by intermediaries.

There may be a distinction in the mind of a message author or
UA software author.  But once the message is sent, there's no
way to reliably differentiate "a short string identifying the topic
of the message" from any cruft that may have been added (as
demonstrated by the various "Re: " examples).

what's wrong with abbreviations? why should I have to say "reply to your message: Attempts at establishing harmful conventions" instead of using "Re:"? more to the point, why is it a bad idea for the subject to indicate that the message is a reply or some other kind of response? why is it a bad idea for the subject to give some indication of message topic? where do you draw the line between what belongs in the subject and what belongs elsewhere?

I don't think this is cruft - I think it's useful information that reasonably belongs in the subject field. what's broken is something else - perhaps our expectation that all messages in a thread should have the same subject.


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