Hey Tim, why do you always reply in-line?

As an aside, a colleague @NationBuilder asked me why I always respond to emails in-line. Here was my reply:

BTW – why do you always reply in-line?

In-line reply/comments is an old Internet writing tradition / best-practice from the late eighties. Back in the days of BBS systems and then later on UseNet, cascading comments of four, five, six (or more) out, made it very difficult to figure out who was responding to what in a long conversation among many. So, a protocol emerged:

> > > > > > This is something someone six replies back said.

And this is my response to it.

> > > > This is something someone said four replies back.

And this is my response to it.

SO that becomes:

> > > > > > Granny smith apples are the best.

Are those the green ones I like those.

> > > > Macintosh apples are the best.

Pretty color, but they don’t taste very good.

The practice was a usability improvement to make it easier to read email chains with cascading comments.  It was widely used by writers who wanted their material to be more widely read and respected, and by those who were sticklers for readability (now called usability), and also used by former calligraphers-turned-fastidious-formatting-neat-freaks. I qualified as all three.

As the masses trickled onto the Internet, they slowly adopted the practice as well. Everything was going great until AOL arrived on the scene. That was pretty much the end of it. People who had been on the Internet for a decade, who had been exchanging emails for years and slowly cultivating these best practices – some of whom built their own modems from parts bought at radio shack, were suddenly *surrounded* by people using a service who’s motto was, I shit yee not: “America Online: So easy to use, no wonder it’s number one.”

Regardless, the practice was stubbornly continued by purists and old-timers.

In the mid 2000s, Robert Fisk adopted a form of this on his blog. If he disagreed with another blogger, he would copy their blog post, paste it into his editor, and then issue his refutation, line-by-line. Wikipedia says: This practice was eventually nicknamed “Fisking“, after Robert Fisk, who would use this particular method to deliver point-by-point criticism highlighting perceived errors, or disputing the analysis in a statement, article, or essay. Fisk was so good at it that “fisking” came to denote the practice of “savaging an argument and scattering the tattered remnants to the four corners of the internet”.

Anyhoo, I’m sure this is waaaaay more than you wanted to know. Who knows, maybe I’ll make this into a blog post.