IT and communication - Internet - Usenet:

Why you shouldn't ask for E-mail responses on Usenet

When you post a question to a Usenet newsgroup, you should be prepared to read the answers from the group. Please do not ask people to respond by E-mail, since that would deprive other users of potentially useful material, and people will not be able to inform you that many of the answers you get by E-mail are bogus.

Quite often we see Usenet postings where a questioner asks for answers by E-mail. Sometimes they even explain this by saying that the questioner does not read the group. Although some of the good old instructions to new users suggest the idea that answers are sent by E-mail to the questioner who then summarizes them in one posting, this idea works rather seldom. In almost all cases, people who ask for answers by E-mail have no intentions whatsoever to summarize anything to anybody. They just want to get an answer, and that's it.

Well, that's very unproductive. First, thinking just from the questioner's point of view,

Most of the advice given on Usenet is wrong, or at least needs to be reviewed critically by other people to become useful. Advice sent by E-mail as response to questions on Usenet tends to be even more wrong, and it won't be reviewed in a public forum. Remember that half of all people know less than the average man, who doesn't know that much of the particular area your question deals with. People's willingness to send an answer does not so often correlate with factual knowledge. (Since most knowledgeable Usenet users know that asking for E-mail answers is a bad idea, there might be a correlation - a negative one.)

Generally, you should check answers you get from Usenet before relying on them. This means consulting reliable sources of information. But in addition to that, you can benefit from other people's comments to someone's answers. An answer which you reject because it does not work might be the best answer, if only a typo were fixed. If answers are posted to the group, they can be criticized and discussed there.

If answers are sent by E-mail, quite a few people might be analyzing your problem without knowing about each other. This may cause problems to the questioner, in the form of E-mail flood, but more importantly it causes waste of time to other people.

From other people's point of view, asking for replies by E-mail is a bad idea. It's often even said to be rude. Why? Because

Even when answers are posted to the group, duplication of work cannot be avoided. There might be several essentially identical answers, either because responders failed to check the existing answer (naughty, naughty) or because they were unable to do that, due to the way Usenet works: there can be delays of hours or even days in the distribution of articles worldwide. But the situation is still much better than with E-mail answers which cannot be checked at all!

Even if the questioner does not care about other people, there is a very good selfish reason to care about other people's point of view here. If you ask for help which indicates, to a knowledgeable person, that you haven't thought about other people's problems, or perhaps consciously neglected them, can you really expect that other people will think about your problem? For all that you could know, people might just think you deserve a wrong answer (perhaps one that even looks right for some time) and send it. Yeah, that would be rude, wouldn't it?

When one needs additional facts or clarifications in order to solve a problem, it is especially important that such information is available to all who wish to try to answer the problem. And such situations are quite common. One might say that if anyone can describe his problem correctly and understandably with all the necessary details without any interaction (clarifying discussion) with other people, he could usually solve it on his own faster than by asking help from others! (Yes, exaggerated, but the point is that when we have problems, we are more or less confused and confusing.)

Many people send their answers to the group, no matter how hard the questioner requests for E-mail answer. That's typically because they think the answers could be useful to people who read the group. On the grounds given above, the average quality of posted answers is probably higher than the quality of mailed answers. Thus, for the questioner's own benefit, he had better check the posted answers. Why bother asking for E-mail replies at all? It's more convenient to check the answers in one "place" only.

"But can't I ask for answers both posted and E-mailed?"

That doesn't really solve anything. What could you possibly win? You will have more work going through duplicates. Many people just don't know how to (or don't care to) send a combined message which is both posted and E-mailed (do you?).

If you're asking that because you don't know whether and how your newsreader can be instructed to show followups to your article to you conveniently, then you're trying to make your problem other people's problem. And even if some other people took the trouble, others won't, so you still would have a problem. See for information on the use of various newsreaders and on the selection of a newsreader which suits your needs.

Sending replies by E-mail, either as the only mode of replying or in conjunction with posting the answer, has become more and more difficult due to the use of messed-up addresses. I mean those "NOSPAM" strings and more confusing methods which, protocolwise, simply turn an address to something invalid. Even if you haven't been lured into "fighting against spam" with methods which (at least in many experts' opinion) cause more trouble than spam itself, how could someone else know that? You might just have mangled your address so that it looks quite OK but does not work. (Examples have been harvested where a message, posted in English to an international newsgroup, have a non-working From field, and a simple explanation at the end how to turn it into a working addresses - but with that explanation in Finnish, since it came from the poster's signature.)

So whatever you think about it, the fact is that many experienced Usenet users know that E-mail addresses on Usenet are increasingly often more or less bogus. This alone might deter them from giving an expert's answer to your problem if they see that you are requesting for E-mail answers.

What about excuses? "I can't read the group" and others?

If you can post to Usenet, you can read Usenet articles. If you have difficulties in using your newsreader so that you can efficiently find answers to your question and comments to those answers, they are your problems. (Of course you might ask for help in such problems by posting to Usenet - but then select the most specific group which deals with the newsreader.) Don't try to make them into other people's problems. If you have temporary problems in Usenet access, they are your problems.

Nowadays, if you have Usenet access at all, you probably have Web access as well. This means that you can normally use services like Google Groups if the news server you normally use is out of operation. At least for reading articles, which is what matters here.

Isn't it ever right to answer by E-mail to a Usenet posting?

Of course. The reader may decide to do so, for various reasons. Some of the reasons might be acceptable to you, some may not.

Asking for E-mail responses might be suitable if you can provide a method of interaction - for seeing other people's answers and commenting on them - which is as good as, or preferably better than, the normal Usenet way. This might be very nice for collecting information.

To take an example, assume that you wish to know the equivalent of "I love you" in as many languages as possible. I don't think this is a particularly interesting project, but the fact is that such studies are carried out and many people are willing to contribute to them. And anyway, this is just an example. In practice, such a project could be carried out relatively efficiently as follows:

  1. Write a Web page which presents the question and how you like the answers. (This might be non-trivial. How would you like to have Chinese texts mailed to you?)
  2. Include into the page as much information as you have, organized in some simple systematic way (in our example, as a table sorted alphabetically by language name in English by language code).
  3. Post an article to a suitable group, explaining very briefly what the project is about and giving the URL of the page, and asking for E-mail replies for the special reason that this seems to be the most efficient method from all people's viewpoint.
  4. Then just wait for replies and check them, updating your Web page regularly so that people need not tell you something you already know (but can point out errors) and all people can benefit from what you are doing together with contributors.

Of course, you should also check the newsgroup for answers. Probably some people will post their contributions there anyway. But unnecessary newsgroup traffic would be greatly reduced.

Such an approach requires quite an effort from the person who runs the project, and it's probably too much to be used for most questions.

So generally, just post your question to a newsgroup - of course after first checking the applicable FAQ(s) - and read the answers there.

See also Netiquette Guidelines, which gives guidelines on good conduct both in one-to-one communication (such as E-mail) and in one-to-many communication (such as Usenet, or "NetNews" as it calls it). It is relatively old, but it is well-written and informative, and it closest to an official netiquette there is, though it is only an informational RFC.

There is much more information about Usenet e.g. in the Usenet section of the Open Directory Project (