A Guide to the Rhetoric of Discussion List Participation

This Guide was written as a poster presentation for the Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference http://leahi.kcc.hawaii.edu/org/tcon2001 I am grateful to the selection committee for accepting the proposal and offering me the opportunity to collect and to comment upon a number of examples.

Style plays an important role in information transfers. Knowing which style to adopt in which situation takes practice. Part of practicing involves observing what others do. The other part involves remembering what one has observed. Good record keeping is, of course, the key to this process.

This Guide is mainly oriented to teachers and students wishing to explore discussion lists outside of a class setting. The examples are drawn from actual postings.

This Guide is organized on a checklist principle. It uses cross-referencing extensively. The exercises can form the basis of an individual's journal keeping or they can be used as the basis of group activities.

Table of Contents

An archive houses the previous contributions to a list. It is well worth taking a tour through the archives of a list. A simple check of the subject headings often reveals much about the habits of subscribers and how well they might thread contributions or replies.

Compare the archive of the XSL Mulberry Technologies discussion list with that of the LOOKSEE list.
Which do you find easier to search?
What is the value to you of chronologic al listings?
How easy is it to follow a thread?
Search the archive of the Humanist discussion list using the keyword "archive".
Did you find any postings that refer to previous postings by inserting a hyperlink to the archived copy?

FAQ stands for Frequently Asked Questions.

Compare the signature block of a message posted to XSL Mulberry Technologies discussion list with the signature block of a message posted to the T EI list.
Which of these provides information on how to find a FAQ associated with the list?
When did postings begin to contain this information?
Search the archive of the XSL Mulberry Technologies discussion list using the keyword "FAQ".
Did you find any references to the FAQ maintained by Dave Pawson being moved?
Did you find any references to an other FAQ?
Which of the two FAQs randomly generates a selection from the FAQ? Is it generated only once a day or every time the page is accessed?
Create your own FAQ.
How would you organize it?
How would you maintain it?

A heated discussion sometimes leads to a Flame or two or more.

Compare the thread on "sets" to XSL Mulberry Technologies discussion list with a thread on "online education" posted to the Humanist list.

The "sets" thread contains a reply http://www.biglist.com/cgi-bin/wilma/wilma_hiliter/xsl-list/200101/msg01161.html. Is this the beginning of the thread? How well-threaded are the follow-ups?

The "online education" contains this posting http://lists.village.virginia.edu/lists_archive/Humanist/v14/0485.html. How did this thread begin? How does it end? How easy is it to follow the thread?

Which of these two threads is the longest?
Which one achieves closure? How do you define closure?
Search the Web for two Netiquette sites. How do they describe flames?
Which of the two Netiquette sites would you use as a guide?

Discussion lists have audiences. This audience is made up of subscribers. Some subscribers do not post messages to the list. Some of these people remain lurkers. Some of the subscribers who do not post directly to the list will contact other subscribers "off list". Some discusion lists are set up so that replies are automatically directed to the poster of a message and that copies of replies destined for the whole list must be explicitly sent to the list. ( See the Text Encoding Initiative for an example.)

Compare how the moderator of the Humanist discussion list with the moderator of the McLuhan discussion list.
Does the moderator mention lurkers?
Does the moderator address subscribers?
How does the moderator's sense of audience affect how information is repackaged?
Search for examples of "split adressee" on the Humanist discussion list.
Look for examples of messages which begin by addressing one subscriber in particular and end with a call for others to join in the conversation.
Look for requests for information where the poster hopes that a subscriber might be able to provide an answer.
Search the archives of any two discussion lists of your choice for the term "lurker".
How comfortable are subscribers with being "overheard"?
How conscious are they of the "fishbowl" effect?
How does it affect the types of messages that posted?
How does it affect the tone of the messages that gets posted?
The tone of the r eplies?
Do these attitudes relate to the use or non-use of signature blocks ?

Some discussion lists are open: any subscriber may post at anytime. Some lists are moderated. A moderator can act as a gatekeeper. A moderator sometimes acts behind the scenes to point newbies to a FAQ or to prune long announcements. A moderator sometimes bundles posts by theme or by type. Some moderators also play the role of animator and seminar leader.

Compare the role of the moderator on the McLuhan discussion list with the role of the moderator on the Text Encoding Initiative discussion list.
Hint: search the list archive using the string "moderator".
Hint: compare the moderator's signature blocks .
Check the XSL Mulberry Technologies discussion list archive for postings with "guidelines" as a subject.
Hint: one such message is dated December 17, 2000.
How often does such a message get posted? Is this a moderated list?
Find a definition of "list owner"? How is a "list owner" different from a "moderator"?
Check the Humanist discussion list archive for mesages relating to forseen and unforseen absences.
What happens on other lists when a moderator is off-duty during a temporary absence?

Social intercourse is not free. It is an understanding that if you can make demands on other people's time and resources, they can make demands on yours. Intellectual intercourse costs. It demands attention to style and its cross-cultural incarnations.

How much bandwidth can you hog?
How long can you keep flogging and reflogging an issue that has been thoroughly debated or a question that has been exhaustively explored?
What kind of tolerance do you have for postings that are off topic?
Do you insist on informative subject headings?
How do you react to poor spelling and grammar? How do you react to someone making it a habit of correcting other people's posts?
How long can you keep flogging and reflogging an issue that has been thoroughly debated or a question that has been exhaustively explored?
Do you use filters? Do you delete without reading? Should you?
How long can you keep flogging and reflogging an issue that has been thoroughly debated or a question that has been exhaustively explored?
What is the appropriate length of a signature block?

Find a site that provides

  1. a cultural history of invective
  2. a definition of flyting
  3. information about spam
  4. a cultural history of bragging
  5. a mention of sermo humilis
Create an anti-netiquette guide.
Reverse all the rules in a netiquette guide you have found.
Write a mock exchange usings these rules.
Consider your reaction to breaches of your personal standards of netiquette.
Do you assume malice?
Do you assume ignorance?
What counts as persistent behaviour?

More than an answer. A link in a chain of dialogue. A node in a web of interconnections.

A reply can summarize. It can ask for elaboration. It can acknowledge. It can enrich.

A reply has direction. It may be sent on list to all the subscribers or it may be sent off-list to an individual or a group.

A reply has timing. On high traffic international lists, sometimes the reply arrives before the question arrives. Also, depending upon their software and their knowledge of their software, users can customize the order of display.

Crafters of replies help their readers manage reading conditions, reading conditions which may sometimes be disjunctive. They use the conventions of letter writing. They use salutations and signatures and they are adept at briefly establishing context. They are sensitive to direction (who is being addressed) and to timing (at what point their reply fits into an ongoing exchange). They use this sensitivity and skill to splice threads and to spin new threads.

Good replies serve the organisation of collective memory.

Discuss this excerpt from a posting to the TEI discussion list concerning its set up history and the decision to make the default setting be private reply to the poster.

I presume the logic for doing this was that although errors might be more common, they are not that troubling. The error we see is mail sent to an individual when the whole list was the intended recipient. If the setting were changed so that the default reply went to the whole list there might be fewer errors, but they would be annoying to many more people, and potentially embarrassing to the sender. The error in this case would be mail sent to the whole list, when an individual was the intended recipient.

Consider how you would post a reference to an archived item. When would you provide a URL or simply a date, with or without the subject heading? When would you use any of these types of reference in combination? Are there other types of reference you would use to help contextualize your reply?
Signature Block

Individuals can and do append to their postings contact information, little bits of ascii art, favourite quotations, URLs.

Messages posted to a discussion list may be grouped by a moderator and so bundled be sent out together with a signature block indicating such information as the location of the list's archive (See Humanist). They can also be added to every single message that is posted to a list (See the XSL Mulberry Technologies discussion list). Such signature blocks can also be appended automatically to messages sent to unmoderated lists.

Signature blocks function much like a calling cards or letter head. Individuals can append their own signature blocks to their postings. Elements of a discussion list's corporate identity can be supplied in a supplied by signature blocks.

Modifying a regular signature block can serve as a callout to mark a transition or a special occassion. The signature block is akin to the credit sequence of a film or the liner notes of a sound recording which also convey information about who, what and where.

Design a signature block. What information would you present first? How many lines does your signature block occupy? Do you use white space to set off elements?
List occasions when would you not use a signature block? If you are a frequent poster to you change elements of your signature block from time to time? How modular is your signature block? Is it easy to modify or update its elements?

Threaded discussions are enhanced by informative subject headings. A subject heading is an first invitation to read the message or pass over it.

Replies sometimes modify subject headings. (e.g. subject: "Web Search Engines [was HELP!]")
As a matter of netiquette, accurate subject headings help subscribers organize their reading. Accurate subject headings help people decide which threads to follow. They also help with people delete spam since mass mailings rarely contain subject lines with enough accuracy or specificity to lure the attention of a moderately skillful email user.

Some posters indicate in their subject headings the type of message they are sending (question, announcement, appreciation, etc.). Subject-conscious posters avoid subject headings that read like newspaper headlines. They refrain from verb forms. They like nouns. They often move from the general to the particular. For example, "Time Zones: impact on scheduling". They are friends of the colon or the dash. They also favour conjunctions like "and" and "or" For example, "Dictionaries: unilingual and bilingual", "Indexes --- by subject or by author", "Archive Organization: date vs thread".

Examine how the moderator of the Humanist discussion list bundles messages. What types of subject lines are used when messages are bundled?
Find examples of reworded subject headings from the archive of the XSL Mulberry Technologies discussion list.

Some high traffic discussion lists, such as the XSL Mulberry Technologies list, have a digest option. The subscriber receives a single message bundling all the posts of the day or of the week.

Subscribers are identified by unique email addresses. Some lists, such as the McLuhan discussion list, offer subscribers a Web-interface for posting. Such interfaces can also process requests to join a list. As well, the interface gives access to the archives: non-subscribers can read postings; subscribers can post replies and new messages. Thus, the discussion list may appear to some subscribers as a news group or as a threaded-discussion board.

Describe the advantages of a digest subscription for following threads. How do digest subcriptions affect the exchange of replies?
Distinguish between a news group, a discussion list and an electronic bulletin board. You may have to consult a history of the Internet and the Web.
Ask yourself if interface design affects people's posting habits.
Consider elements such as screen real estate and attitudes towards scrolling.
Consider also whether the subscribers to discussion lists tend to write with lurkers in mind. Ask yourself if subscribers to news groups tend to keep the notion of an archive in mind. Remember not all news groups or discussion lists are archived. You may recall from your historical survey that some lists and groups do permit access to the names of their members. Reflect upon the play of audience and posterity. Do posters compose to be re-read? Do they write for a specific insider crowd? Do they make allowances for future readers and newbies?

You can spin, splice or split...

Read this excerpt from the XSL Mulberry Technologies list guidelines:

It is best to start a new message for a new thread. Do not start a new thread by replying to an unrelated message and just changing the subject line, since the header of your message will contain references to the previous message and your new message will appear in the archive as one of the replies to the original message.

Consider how threading is like a filing system.

Types of posting

Credit where credit is due


Short & catchy
Plus info about how to get further details


Best to pick up a bit of context from the question
Good to generalize from the specific case where possible


A thank you to an individual or a a group


Useful for a varitey of acknowledgements, announcements, answers, appreciations, and questions that need not be broadcast


A good question invites a good answer.

Selection of Discussion Lists
Humanist is an international electronic seminar on the application of computers to the humanities. Its primary aim is to provide a forum for discussion of intellectual, scholarly, pedagogical, and social issues and for exchange of information among members. Humanist is allied with the Association for Computers and the Humanities and the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing. It is an affiliated publication of the American Council of Learned Societies and a publication of the Office for Humanities Communication (U.K.). Moderated by Willard McCarty.
Providing "Resources for Image-Based Humanities Computing", the LOOKSEE page is the work of Matthew G. Kirschenbaum. It is hosted by the collaboratory for Research in Computing for Humanities at the University of Kentucky. LOOKSEE's long-term goal is to serve as a community focal point for the collaborative development of open source image analysis tools.
The McLuhan discussion list is hosted by St. Francis Xavier University and moderated by Peter Montgomery. It is devoted to the study of media technology in general and the work of Marshall McLuhan in particular.
Text Encoding Initiative
The TEI-L discussion list is up for private reply to posters which means subscribers sometimes post summaries of replies they have received back to the list for general consumption. You can search the archive online for postings from the beginning to the present. As well, you can download a local copy of postings from 1990 to1994 (1 Mb; tar gzip) of it. The list is moderated by Syd Bauman
XSL discussion list hosted by Mulberry Technologies
A high traffic list. A very rich archive for anyone interested in the genesis of information resources. Excellent examples of principled disagreement. Good collection of various styles of interaction between experts and newbies.
Cooper, Virginia and Ellen Deacon, Charles Esser, Christopher Moore.
Resource Manual for a Living Revolution
New Society Publishers
ISBN 0-86571-008-2
Contains many exercises for group dynamics. Challenge is to adapt them to an electronic environment. Brainstorming by email is a delicate art compared to brainstorming in a synchronous chat. The chapters on "The Role of Affirmation in Building Communities of Support" and on "Evaluation" are worthy touchstones.
Faber, Adele and Elaine Mazlich
How To Talk So Kids Can Learn
New York
Rawson Associates
ISBN 0-684-81333-5
Lots of examples that can be easily adapted to adult-adult communication in electronic settings. Comic strip illustrations accompany the text. Pointers such as "Describe the problem" & "Provide Information" are useful for list participants looking for ways to intervene effectively in discussions. Chapter Five "Praise That Doesn't Demean, Criticism That Doesn't Wound" might be of particular interest to students and teachers of rhetoric.
Martin, Judith (aka Miss Manners)
Miss Manners' Basic Training: Communication
New York
Crown Publishing Inc.
ISBN 0-517-70673-3
The Gentle Readers may find an extended description on the flycover which sums up the book "in which Miss Manners explains the proper form and choice of technology for messages private, professional and public: when to phone, when to fax, when a handwritten note is obligatory, a form letter forbidden and a chain letter out fo the question".


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