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MoreOn: Re: MoreOn: Attempts at establishing harmful conventions

2004-11-30 19:07:48

[Sorry, couldn't resist continuing to play with the subject line.]

On Nov 30, 2004, at 8:09 PM, Keith Moore wrote:

I see (at least) two distinct kinds of badness associated with [listname] tags. One is that they get in the way of searches, comparisons, display, etc. so there's a temptation to remove or ignore them just as with Re:, Fwd: and similar tags.

I'm not sure this is a problem. Is it a problem if a search engine builds in a smart spelling algorithm, so that searching for "colour" finds "color" and "collor"? It seems to me that a similarly "smart" email system would build in heuristics based on common human email conventions. Where's the problem?

The other is the harm to transparency - these tags alter the message content from what the original author intended. Footers added by lists cause the same kinds of problems. This begs the question - is the purpose of the list to be a transparent multicast channel or is it an original source of content?

As usual, you've asked precisely the right question. I think it points to the fundamentally human element here, which is that some lists have the former purpose and some the latter. One might taxonimize them as "transparent mailing lists," "header-modifying mailing lists," "body-modifying mailing lists," and "non-transparent mailing lists." Any of these might reflect a reasonably legitimate set of needs on the part of the list owner. I think we just have to deal with it. It might be nice, however, if there were a way to tell the difference.

For instance, the message-id should be changed, in-reply-to and references fields should be cleared or altered, etc.

Or, perhaps, a "List-modifications" field could be defined.

As for the "dog" analogy: we can scarcely prevent any kind of protocol violation. But we can at least point out that some practices are undesirable and try to discourage them.

Perhaps we need the equivalent of a "Curb Your Dog" sign for mail sent to mailing lists? A "please don't screw with this message" flag? Would that be useful in any way?

Humans want things to be mostly unstructured; computer programs want things to be highly structured. Humans prefer loose definitions for data elements; computer programs prefer strict definitions. And yet we want computer programs that deal with human natural language communications. This seems like an inherent conflict that we're not likely to resolve.

Very well put. But a good first step is to distinguish the parts of a program (e.g. an MUA) that are dealing with structured protocols like MIME from those that are dealing with human conventions like those in the subject lines. That way you can keep the heuristics in the parts of the software that actually need them. Your MIME parser really shouldn't have to make too many guesses, but your subject line parser will probably be better if it makes some informed guesses about human conventions. -- Nathaniel

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