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In all e-mail clients I know, when someone is responding to an e-mail, the response is written at the top, above the original e-mail.

I don't understand the reason for this choice. It seems that:

  • For any e-mail which is long enough to require a vertical scrollbar, I have to scroll to the top before answering.

  • It makes it very awkward to read a discussion with several e-mails. I have to read a piece of text from top to bottom, then jump to the top and find the beginning of the next message.

  • It's simply counter-intuitive. Books, scientific papers and web pages are written from top to bottom. There is no such a thing as chapter one being positioned at the end of the book, and the last chapter being at the beginning.

What would explain this original choice? I mean, since someone, around 1985, came with the idea of doing it this way, as opposed to use a usual paradigm used for existent content such as books, there was probably a good reason for that. Or was it purely technical?

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Because when you're reading someone's reply, you're interested in reading what they have to say more so than what you've already told them, so that's at the top for you to be able to read it first. It's the order that makes sense for the simple question/answer use case, when email clients cannot do any smart processing of quoted text.

What this sacrifices is the use cases for forwarding or adding people to the thread, where the context is backwards. It is a less frequent use case so it's reasonable.

At some point in email history there might have been a point at which the protocol could have become more structured and support both use cases better. That opportunity was lost a long time ago as email's strength (interoperability) is also its weakness (ossification of functionality) so now you see models like Slack evolving in their own way apart from email to try and solve for both kinds of use cases.

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It was not always so. Once upon a time, when email was predominantly used by technical people, the convention was to reply at the bottom, and also edit the quoted text to contain the bare minimum of pertinent information. Top-posting was a faux pas, and you would be criticised for it.

However, as email became more mainstream, most people didn't want to expend the effort to edit previous responses, so they did the simplest thing possible, which was to reply at the top and leave the full conversation thread below. This has the advantage that there's no scrolling required to get to the newly-written content, but the thread history is available if you want it.

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The reason is because reading it in this way would track backwards from "right now" until the beginning of the conversation.

Email is designed as an asynchronous way of passing along simple, quick facts and information. It isn't designed for deep thought or heavy reading. The most important information is the most recent. The older information is outdated and often irrelevant by the time the last message is sent. .

If we started reading at the beginning of the conversation each time, not only would it take a lot longer, but there would be a lot of outdated information to sift through that would end up clouding the discussion.

  • Email is not in any way designed or limited to "simple quick facts" – manassehkatz Mar 28 at 4:45
  • What I mean is that email is designed to efficiently get the main ideas across and attach documents as needed ... blunt, quick, easy to archive and forward. People who want more can send a letter, have a meeting, or make a phone call. Email is way too limited to use for a serious communication tool due to the limited interaction. First, it is asynchronous. You are not in the same mental mindset from session to session. Second, body language and eye contact are completely absent. Misunderstandings are common. Third, if you think of a clarifying question, the answer takes too long. – Skeptycal Mar 30 at 22:44
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    I disagree. "send a letter" actually has the same (perceived) disadvantages as email and takes much longer for a communication cycle. A meeting or a phone call has huge advantages in terms of instant, immediate feedback & interaction as well as body language, eye contact, etc. However, "clarifying question takes too long" is not necessarily true for email as the turnaround can be very quick. As far as details, yes they are often better as attachments but can be quite well included in the body of an email. Email's usefulness can vary greatly depending on the users. – manassehkatz Mar 31 at 1:07
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    My experiences vary - I'm famous for my one word email replies "Done". But I also write long elaborate, (hopefully) well thought out emails too. It depends on the topic and the audience. Just like phone calls can be "Hi, I'm on my way see you in 5 minutes" or an hour-long conversation, emails can be short or long. Email is a flexible tool. What you do with it is up to you. – manassehkatz Apr 1 at 16:49
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    I would love to have a way, without a survey, to find out just how people do use email. I guess experiences could vary much more widely than I thought. What is the average length and cognitive level of an email? I really don't know. But the data hound in me sure is curious. – Skeptycal Apr 1 at 17:00

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