Information Escapology, part two – The Perils of Top Posting

Posting styles are a matter of personal choice; top posting is probably the most common one, possibly influenced by the design of everyday email clients. When replying to a message, software like Microsoft Outlook will put the original message below the caret, leading to an ever-growing top-posted exchange between the participants.

I’m not going incite a flame war by debating the various merits of each posting style, but I do have a word of caution.

With a top-posted conversation, it’s very easy to get into the cycle of hit-reply->type->hit-send. The context for your thoughts is the message you are directly replying to, the last one in the chain; it’s easy to lose track of what’s been said previously.

The problem comes when you introduce a third party to the conversation – how many times have you received an email like the one below that arrived in Tim’s inbox:

From: Bob, BigCorp CEO
To: Ken, BigCorp HR Director; Tim, IT Support
Subject: RE: Outlook

Tim,

Email seems really slow today. Please could you investigate as a priority.

Bob

——– Original Message ——–
From: Ken, BigCorp HR Director
To: Bob, BigCorp CEO
Subject: RE: Outlook

It’s not just you. Every message I’ve sent today has taken ages to get through.

Ken

——– Original Message ——–
From: Bob, BigCorp CEO
To: Ken, BigCorp HR Director
Subject: RE: Outlook

Is it just me, or is email really slow today?

Bob

——– Original Message ——–
From: Ken, BigCorp HR Director
To: Bob, BigCorp CEO
Subject: RE: Outlook

That’s true, but he’s better at his job than the other two are at theirs. Perhaps we should cut his salary as well as let someone go?

Ken

——– Original Message ——–
From: Bob, BigCorp CEO
To: Ken, BigCorp HR Director
Subject: RE: Outlook

Can we get rid of Brian? He gets paid twice what the others do.

Bob

——– Original Message ——–
From: Ken, BigCorp HR Director
To: Bob, BigCorp CEO
Subject: RE: Outlook

Possible candidates:

Sue, from design.
Tim, from IT.
Brian, from marketing.

Ken

——– Original Message ——–
From: Bob, BigCorp CEO
To: Ken, BigCorp HR Director
Subject: Outlook

Things aren’t looking good. We’re going to have to let some people go. Any thoughts on who?

Bob

It’s perhaps a silly example, but you get the idea. Bob and Ken’s focus has shifted from their company’s impending doom to a technical matter, and they’ve inadvertently disclosed to Tim far more than they intended to. The “top post by design” nature of their email clients has caused them to lose awareness that this email exchange is getting longer and longer and is containing more and more information.

The next time you receive an email with RE: in the subject line, scroll down and see how far the rabbit hole goes. The next time you send a reply, make sure you know exactly what you’re sending. Otherwise you’ll end up on the receiving end of Tim, Sue and Brian…


Alec Waters is responsible for all things security at Dataline Software, and can be emailed at alec.waters(at)dataline.co.uk

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