The Formatting of Network Messages

J. K. Buda


Each medium of communication imposes its own characteristic constraints upon the form and content of the communication.

The following report is the second in a continuing study of a relatively new medium: that of computer network communication.

Computer network communication makes use of the data processing and storage capabilities of the computer and the data transmission capability of the telephone to relay messages from user to user. It resembles the regular postal service in its method of message routing and delivery, and fax transmission in its use of the telephone to send written messages.

What is different, however, is the ability of computer networking to link a vast number of users in an information-sharing network, transcending limitations of time and distance.

The first study defined computer networking and identified several characteristic features, including information overload, threading, quotations, abbreviations, quality of writing, and flaming.[1]

It was suggested that these characteristic features are related to the nature of the medium itself. The enormous amount of information handled by the medium, the speed with which it is transmitted, and the manner in which the information is processed—all of these affect the form and content of the messages carried.

Message traffic on networks is of two types: private E-mail (electronic mail) and public messages. The latter are the electronic equivalent of the readers' letters in newspapers, though the way in which they are written, transmitted and read more closely resembles the posting of messages on a bulletin board. For this reason, such network forums are usually referred to as BBSs (Bulletin Board Services).

The present study looks at the formatting of messages posted in computer network public forums.


The object of the present study was a corpus of five hundred messages (the 'message corpus') downloaded from the GEnie electronic network in the United States. This network is the second largest commercial network in North America, with a membership of several hundred thousand.

Although the content of the messages was not the focus of this study, it was anticipated that content might have an indirect effect on message form, and in an attempt to counteract any such effect, the message samples were taken from four sources representing different subject matter. These were:

  1. Japan RoundTable Bulletin Board (126 messages)
    A forum for discussion of topics related to Japan and East Asia.
  2. GE-MUG RoundTable Bulletin Board (184 messages)
    A forum for discussion of topics related to personal computing.
  3. Religion & Philosophy RoundTable Bulletin Board (58 messages)
    A forum for discussion of topics related to religion, philosophy, ethics, and science.
  4. Public Forum RoundTable Bulletin Board (132 messages)
    A forum for discussion of a wide range of public-interest topics.

The GEnie Information Service is organized on a hierarchical basis, the public message area being divided into several dozen specific-interest groups called RoundTables. These RoundTables (RTs) are further divided into software libraries and bulletin boards, the latter being the forums where messages are exchanged. With some of the more active RT bulletin boards carrying several hundred messages a day, it is necessary to further subdivide these bulletin boards into content-specific Categories. Within each category, users are free to start their own Topics, each user naming and defining his or her topic, and inviting other users to participate in a discussion of the specified subject.

The Japan RoundTable Bulletin Board and GE-MUG Macintosh Users RoundTable Bulletin Board samples consist of all messages in all topics of all categories posted within the period of one week. The Public Forum RT Bulletin Board and Religion & Philosophy RT Bulletin Board are two of the most active boards on the GEnie system, and it would have been impractical to include all of one week's message traffic. Consequently, the samples from these two boards each represent one full month of message traffic in one randomly-chosen topic.

The sample messages were downloaded from GEnie and stored as text files. These files were then edited to remove System messages and prompts, and RoundTable, Category, and Topic banners and headers. Message headers were left to provide a reference for location, author, and time of posting. This information was not relevant to the present study, but may prove useful in further analyses of the message corpus.

The edited messages were then printed out and analysed according to the following criteria:

  1. Overall style
  2. Salutation
  3. Complimentary close
  4. Signature
  5. Emphasis
  6. Abbreviations
  7. Emoticons
  8. Quotations

1. Overall style

The GEnie system text editor imposes few constraints upon the input of messages. Lines must end with a carriage return, but line length is limited only by the size of the system buffer. Users composing a message online will usually insert a carriage return before reaching the right margin of the screen, but users uploading messages previously composed with word processing software are free to chose their own line length, usually between 70 and 80 characters. Once a message has been uploaded and stored, the system will automatically insert carriage returns at the registered line length of the receiving user's terminal screen.

Because of the lack of system constraints, users are free to format messages as they wish, and it can be assumed that the final format of a specific message reflects the user's individual preference.

2. Salutation

Unlike some networks and BBSs, GEnie does not have a message threading facility to identify responses to previous messages. This facility is a necessary feature of systems with a much looser organization of messages. GEnie's user-defined topic system reduces this necessity, any user wishing to change the topic being free to start a completely new one. Nevertheless, it is not unusual for a single topic to generate several independent or related threads, and it is incumbent upon individual users to make clear to which thread they are responding, and to whom the message is addressed.[2]

3. Complimentary close

Bulletin board messages are a mixture of open messages addressed to everyone reading the board, individual messages addressed to specific users, and messages falling somewhere between these two categories. Some messages may address several users, either individually or as a group, and some messages may shift from personal to public in midstream. This ambiguity in the relationship between the writer and his or her reader(s) makes the use of complimentary closes extremely problematic. Although they are still widely used in E-mail letters, they are much less common in public messages.

4. Signature

In the GEnie system, the header to each message identifies the writer by his or her GE Mail address (usually a stylized form of the real name, as in J.SMITH27) and an optional 'handle' or nickname chosen by the user. This is in contrast to many other electronic networks, where the handle replaces the user's real name for the purpose of privacy. Where the user has chosen to register a handle, it is customary for other users to address him or her by that handle. Whether by address or handle, the header preceding each message clearly identifies the author, making the use of a signature at the end of the message unnecessary. Some users do, however, add a signature which is different from either the address or handle.

5. Emphasis

The GEnie interface supports only the standard set of ASCII alphanumerics and symbols. Users wishing to add emphasis to words or phrases must therefore find their own substitutes for such formatting conventions as underlining, italics, or bold face.

6. Abbreviations

The rapid pace of bulletin board message exchange has given rise to a wide variety of abbreviations and acronyms designed to speed up the input of commonly-used phrases and expressions. It should be said that input speed is a consideration mainly for users composing messages online, i.e. while connected to the network. Because most networks charge for use by time, it is more common for users to compose messages offline after they have disconnected from the network, and then upload the completed message in as short a time as possible.

7. Emoticons

Emoticons (emotive icons) are related to abbreviations, and represent an attempt to convey subtle emotional nuances by means of largely non-verbal graphic designs constructed from punctuation marks and other symbols. The impersonality of network communication (it is rare for users to meet in person) makes it extremely difficult for the reader of a message to evaluate the character or intent of the writer. Conversely, the brevity of most messages, and the speed with which they have to be composed to keep up with network dialogue, make it very difficult for the writer to express him or herself adequately. Misunderstandings are frequent, and the public nature of the medium makes users extremely sensitive to perceived criticism. Emoticons representing such non-verbal cues as smiles, winks, shrugs, and frowns are one way to make clear the intention of the writer.

8. Quotations

Quotations from previous messages are an important method of preserving continuity of theme, and identifying threads in a topic. Without them, it would be almost impossible to know to what message, or even to what part of a message, a specific reply is addressed. Some systems include a quotation function which will format and insert text from previous messages into ones being composed online. The same function is available in some telecom software applications, or can be reproduced by the use of macro commands in word processors.


1. Overall style

An analysis of the corpus showed that all of the messages were formatted according to one of five distinct styles, though a number of minor variations were noted within each style.

Definitions and examples of these five representative styles follow:

a. Full Block Style: No indentation, space between paragraphs.

Category 8, Topic21
Message 158      Tue Mar 02, 1993
K.LAUX [KEN]                at 01:07 EST

The Japanese are not as "rationalizing" or "rationalistic" or as prone to hair-
splitting as are Westerners.  (I don't want to say their less rational;
sometimes what appears to be arational is actually deeply imbued with
rationality.) Hence they're not inclined to engage in debates on when life
begins, and so on.

I don't mean to belittle these matters; I personally think it's crucially
important.  But I can also understand why the Japanese are less interested.

In the end, I guess, the answer lies in the Christian religions' command to
"Go forth and multiply", a directive with no counterpart in Buddhism or

b. Semi Indent: Indentation of first line of paragraph; no space between paragraphs.

Category 2, Topic15
Message 65       Wed Mar 03, 1993
G.DARBY1 [GEORGE]           at 23:50 EST


        I am totally! sold on Heisig.  I used his volume one to learn all 2042
in fairly quickly.  Then, to start putting yomi with kaki <g>, I did Jordan's
30-tape set. I don't think I'm kanji crippled because I see Heisig primitives
instead of bushu... but it is pretty funny when I parse aloud an unfamiliar
kanji.  All nihonjin who have heard it happen know exactly what elements of a
kanji I am referring to, even if it is novel.
        Hurray for Heisig, I say.  Associative learning for adult Westerners
vs. rote order and drill for J primary schoolkids. There's a big difference. 
Stick with it.
        Heisig vol. II is another matter, however....  It's more like Heisig V
with vol. II, III, and IV unwritten (i.e., learned elsewhere).

c. Full Indent: Indentation of first line of paragraph; space between paragraphs.

Category 24, Topic 5
Message 6        Thu Mar 04, 1993
DTP.RT [Rodney]             at 09:31 EST


 You can get an AppleTalk board for your ImageWriter, if Apple still makes

 The Axion Switch is $129 from MacWarehouse, and it sounds pretty good (if it
works right).  There are also a couple of other companies that make similar



d. Hanging Indent: Indentation of second and subsequent lines of paragraph; space between paragraphs.

Category 21, Topic 6
Message 365      Sat Feb 20, 1993
P.SIMMEL [Paul]             at 23:32 EST

Well, Byron, what say you?


'Stranger In A Strange Land' (1961) has been re released in its
 original unedited form.  I read it years ago before I got into Scn.

Weren't Hubbard and Heinlein Buds?

The protagonist Valentine Michael Smith would have been [probably
 was] an ideal OT role model, and the character Jubil... his aids
 responding to "front!" each time Jubil needs something might well
 have been Messengers.  But in this case Jubil is a good guy,

Michael causes things to "go away", slows down time so that he can
 skip through the seconds as if they were hours, levitates people
 and things, exteriorizes and communicates through telepathy (if he
 wants) and has no concept of earthly morals yet he is "good".
 Actually he's a great character and I'm glad to be reading the book

I suppose Scn'sts will think that Hubbard influenced Heinlein!  I
 can remember that 10 years after the computer boom, Hubbard
 realized that the world was "going computer" and announced it as
 if it were a revelation.



e. No format.

Category 7, Topic34
Message 23       Sat Mar 06, 1993
M.BALLOU [SASHIMI]          at 11:24 EST

Barbara: Interesting comment about the possibility of once being Japanese in a
former life.  I remember that on the flight to Okinawa, a woman looked at my
hand and said that I had had either 11 lives or this was my first.  Sometimes
I feel too old, not necessarily wise, for  this to be  my first life.  In my
work, I have been talking to a woman who works at a Chicago Ad agency.  She is
Japanese 3rd generation American. Told her about GEnie and the Japan RT.  She
had not heard of either. Was going to send her a copy of PC Aladdin, but,
could not figure out the micro-programed configuration, and settings, I had
wanted to pre-load the settins, so that  she could just pop in the disk and go
directly to the Japan RT. I loves my Amiga, just, point and click, point and
click.  Even, I mastered that after six months. Once, I pointed and clicked on
my System (DOS): Icon and deleted it. Can you say "No Dos?", it dun work no
mo.   Just wanted to say "Hi" and that your comment was very thoughtful. M

The following table gives the results of the Overall Style analysis:

Full Block 414 (83%)
Semi Indent 11 (2%)
Full Indent 34 (7%)
Hanging Indent 7 (1%)
No Format 34 7%)

The prevalence (83%) of the Full Block style of formatting came as no surprise. This style is predominant in commercial correspondence, and represents an optimum balance between economy of formatting and legibility of message.

The relatively high incidence of Full Indent style messages was unexpected. This style is usually associated with personal correspondence, and with British usage.

The reasons for the use of the Hanging Indent style are not clear. This style is normally used in cases where each paragraph is preceded by a bullet or a number, as in lists. One possible reason may have been user oversight, caused by typing a message on a word processor whose ruler (paragraph format style) had been set to give a negative indent.

A number of minor variations were found within each of the five major styles listed above. Notable among these was the inclusion of a space at the beginning of each line. This might represent an attempt at giving the more pleasing aesthetic effect of a wider margin. Another possible reason for the inclusion of this space is forced formatting. As mentioned above, the GEnie system text editor will wrap all outgoing lines to the screen width of each user's terminal. Paragraphs are preserved only if a carriage return is followed by a space.

For example, using ^R to represent a carriage return, and ^S to represent a space, a message sent as:

Personally, I like a tape drive for backup.^R

On the other hand, Unk's strategy of backing up partitions to cartridges sounds
neat. R Tape is real convenient though.  I just set it running, go off to lunch,
and when I get back, it's done.^R

will be displayed on a standard 80-character-width terminal as:

Personally, I like a tape drive for backup.  On the other hand, Unk's strategy
of backing up partitions to cartridges sounds neat.  Tape is real convenient
though.  I just set it running, go off to lunch, and when I get back, it's

Likewise, a message sent as:

>>> D.JAN^R
> 14" non- Apple monitor...^R
Any idea what brand of monitor?^R
= Diff =^R

will be shown as:

>>> D.JAN  > 14" non- Apple monitor... Any idea what brand of monitor?
= Diff =

To preserve the original formatting, a space needs to be inserted at the beginning of each blank line, as in:

 >>> D.JAN^R
> 14" non- Apple monitor...^R
Any idea what brand of monitor?^R
= Diff =

Another case where preserved formatting is necessary is in space-defined tables. The GEnie system does not support tabs, and columns of text have to be offset with multiple spaces.

A table of figures uploaded as:

  Kotondo    Hokusai    Utamaro    Hiroshige    Shinsui    Goyo
  Hasui      Sharaku    Hoshi      Gen          Munakata   Jacoulet
  Onchi      Saito      M. Ikeda   Nakayama     Y. Hamaguchi
  H. Yoshida            Kuniyoshi               Sekino

will be displayed as:

Kotondo    Hokusai    Utamaro    Hiroshige    Shinsui    GoyoHasui     Sharaku
Hoshi       Gen           Munakata    JacouletOnchi       Saito      M. Ikeda
Nakayama     Y. Hamaguchi
H. Yoshida            Kuniyoshi              Sekino

Once again, the insertion of a space at the beginning of each line will preserve the original formatting. It should be noted, however, that the GEnie system text editor already has a specific command for this function (*SN). It may be that users are unaware of the existence of this command, or that they compose their messages on word processing software that automatically inserts such a space.

2. Salutation

The salutation serves an important function in topic-based bulletin boards, identifying the user to whom a specific message is addressed. Without salutations, it would be difficult indeed to follow two or three independent threads of discussion.

For the purpose of this study, a salutation was defined as a name occurring at the beginning of a message and offset by a punctuation mark. The most common punctuation marks were commas and colons, as in:

Doug Holmes:

though some salutations used dashes or arrows:

Lron - 
ukotto-san - 

Although most users followed the salutation with a carriage return, many chose to run on to the main text of the message. This was particularly true of salutations offset with a dash, though several examples offset with a comma, colon, or other punctuation mark were also found:

Guy Jean - I agree about the libraries and all but none of  my local ones have
the Iyer book. Besides, as a writer I think we have to sometimes support the
authors by actually buying their books.  I hope, though, I don't regret
purchasing "Lady and the Monk"!

Rodney--Yes, i downloaded UnZIP 2.0, but can't UnStuff it. The error box said
something such as "Can't open file--compressed with different version of

Doc, the wire you see in the Trinitron tubes 1 for 13-14" monitors, 2 for 17
and larger I do beleive holds the shadow mask in place, it does not have
anything to do with degaussing that I am aware of.

Norm: Great to hear from you again. How recently did Happi Sushi change
owners? I've had several bad experiences there, all to do with poor service,
not bad food, so I haven't been back for about a year. If things have shaped
up, I'll try it again.

J.Allen27..... No, Hawaii, has just gotten the March issue of MacUser and
MacWorld... I have subscribed and the subscriptions typically get here about 2
months late.  I am looking forward to the new issues getting here.  I just got
(yesterday) the new Byte mag which has a picture.  Thank You all for your
help...Larry, here on Maui...paradise but, a bit behind.....

There was not a single example of the traditional 'Dear…' salutation in the entire message corpus.

Of the 500 messages in the corpus, 226 contained a salutation.

Many examples of embedded quasi-salutations were evident, in which the name of the person to whom the message was addressed was mentioned in the body of the text:

Thanks, Doc. Now at least I know that I'm not being _totally_ ignored. ;-)

For the purpose of this study it was decided not to classify such embedded names as salutations. The dividing line is, however, a very fine one, and the inclusion of all embedded names in this category would have increased the figure for salutations by approximately 20%.

3. Complimentary close

No examples of formal complimentary closes such as 'Yours sincerely' or 'Yours truly' were found in the message corpus, the closest to a traditional close being 'Regards'. For the purposes of this study, any informal closing phrase was counted as a complimentary close. Despite this loose definition, only 8 variations were found in the entire corpus:

Go well,
Bon voyage,
Be seeing you...
Later dudes

The total number of complimentary closes found in the message corpus was 12.

4. Signature

As reference to the sample messages given earlier will show, the GEnie message header lists the name and nickname of the writer, making a separate signature unnecessary for identification purposes. Many users did, however, prefer to end their messages with a signature. These ranged from full names to initials, with several examples of more elaborate logos generated by word processing macro commands, as in:

  /,     ,_
  /| ORN /-LAKE

The total number of signatures found in the message corpus was 250.

The following table gives the combined results of the analysis of salutations, signatures, and complimentary closes.

Salutation 53 (11%)
Signature 77 (15%)
Salutation & Signature 173 (35%)
Complimentary Close 12 (2%)

It is difficult to account for the low incidence of salutations. Open messages addressed to all readers of a bulletin board do not require a salutation, though some users nevertheless preface such open messages with salutations such as:

To All:
To any and all:

Such open messages are, however, a rarity on bulletin boards, most messages being responses to previous postings.

A number of reasons may be considered for this unexpectedly low occurrence of salutations. Messages in any one topic on the GEnie system are stored and presented in the order in which they are posted, irrespective of content or author. A user posting an online response to the last message in a topic usually assumes that his or her response will appear directly after the original message. The writer of the response may feel that the physical juxtaposition of the two messages is enough to indicate the relationship. It is not unknown, however, for a user to discover that someone else has posted a reply while they were composing their own. For responses composed offline, the likelihood of another message being interposed becomes much greater. Another possible reason may be a lack of awareness of the network audience. The writer is conscious of only his or her dialogue with another user, and forgets the necessity of making the dialogue accessible to others.

It was interesting to note that the number of signatures exceeded the number of salutations, indicating perhaps a certain self-consciousness on the part of the writer. This would support the findings of the earlier study. [3]

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the high incidence of messages containing neither salutation nor signature (39%). This indicates either unfamiliarity with the conventions of bulletin board messages, or a certain degree of carelessness caused by haste. This would again support the findings of the earlier study.

5. Emphasis

The GEnie interface does not support character styles such as bold, italic, and underline. Users must consequently find acceptable substitutes for these styles.

Of the 500 messages in the corpus, 113 (23%) contained some form of character stylization to indicate emphasis or to identify a book title or proper noun. In professionally formatted publications, italic or bold faces would normally be used for this purpose. In typewritten academic publications, however, underlining is the accepted substitute.

By far the most common form of bulletin board substitute is capitalization, in which the entire word is written in capitals, as in:

  Some good books to read that might help are THE SECRET LIFE OF PLANTS.


 While the overt-motivator cycle has some validity, you are not really
suggesting that "EVERYONE and ANYONE who had nasty experiences in the Mcarthy
era (early 50's) and talked about their experiences with others, were guilty
of crimes against the US government. This is exactly what you are implying
(possibly unwittingly). You, by taking this position will have to reflect on
the following question:
 What has hubburd done TO, and what has he withheld FROM his followers, that
he so strenuously labored to hide from them.
 His communications were full of venom, to real and imagine foes, his
 relentless fury and vindictive stance give rise to the question "WHAT HAS HE
DONE TO HIS FOLLOWERS" was he motivating by his hiding from them.

Another technique is to highlight the word of phrase by bracketing it with symbols. By far the most common symbols were single underline characters. Examples of this and other usages follow:

I did finish _The Lady & the Monk_ & have started _Bulls in the China Shop_ It
seems to be fairly even-handed in its treatment of all parties. It also shows
more depth than 1 might think. For example, it compares Deng's faction with
the 19th century Self-Strengtheners. It starts out with the showing of Arthur
Miller's play "Death of a Salesman" in Beijing. At least it isn't about such
horrendous events as are depicted in _Wild Swans_.

SuperATM IS the latest version of ATM, that is ATM 3.5. The latest version of
_regular_ ATM is 3.0.1. Thus, SuperATM DOES NOT come bundled with the latest
version of _regular_ ATM, according to Adobe that is.

 You should drop a line to Jeff Siegel (J.SIEGEL4) and let him know.
 If they do a program guide that is complete enought to list
 -panelists- as well as panels (some don't, then you should be mentioned.

 Special bonus: if they shut the library down as another symbol of 
 (national) sacrifice, you may even get to =keep= whatever books you 
 happen to have checked out!

        Technical jargon?  That's \your\ department.  I'm one of the "unwashed
masses" myself, and what looks like jargon is just an attempt to invent and
define in context terminology to describe concepts that haven't been described
in layman's English before or in any existing technical jargon.  What amazes
me is that quite a few people who've read WAR IN HEAVEN seem to have
understood my "spiritual physics" descriptions well enough to make intelligent-
 sounding comments.  In any case, this was the best answer I could give in
answer to the question I received -- and I \certainly\ don't claim to fully
understand all this myself.  In fact, I'm not even \interested\ in physics --
my Guides just sent me this stuff because they felt it would be useful to
certain readers, and I included it in the book.  If it means nothing to you, I
suggest you just ignore it.  In fact, since I'm only throwing out "food for
thought" and not asking anyone to accept or believe anything I say in this
topic, you may ending up getting pretty bored here.  Be as skeptical, even
cynical as you want -- I'm certainly not going to argue with you.

In FrEx topics, it has been my policy to leave anything alone that is not in
the list of "kill on sight" words or quote posts that are longer than 2 1/2
screens of text.  The GEnie rules are that quotes should not be the bulk of a
post, and that long quotes MUST be posted by permission of the author. 
(Excuse me, that above should read +SHORTER+ than 2 1/2 screens).

6. Abbreviations

The abbreviation of commonly-used phrases is a useful way of speeding up input and reducing online time. It came as a major surprise, therefore, to find that only 13 (3%) of the messages in the corpus contained such abbreviations.

Examples found were:

FWIW  (For What It's Worth)
OTOH  (On The Other Hand)
IMHO  (In My Humble Opinion)
IMO   (In My Opinion)
BTW   (By The Way)

7. Emoticons

Along with abbreviations, emoticons serve a useful purpose in allowing writers to express emotional content graphically. Emoticons can express amusement, disappointment, surprise, and many other emotions which would otherwise require time and literary skill to articulate adequately. A smiley mark, for example, will signify that the preceding statement was meant as a joke, and is not to be taken seriously or at face value. The absence of a smiley mark or similar emoticon after an ironical statement will often result in a heated and sometimes vindictive personal exchange.[4] Emoticons are invaluable in the prevention of ambiguity and misunderstanding.

Of the entire corpus of 500 messages, 76 (15%) exhibited emoticons. It is difficult to evaluate the significance of this figure. A higher figure was expected, and the lower result may be a reflection of the subject matter of the message corpus.

The most common emoticons in order of frequency were:

<g>      grin                (24)
:)       smiley              (23)
;)       wink                 (9)
:-)      smiley variation     (8)
;-)      wink variation       (7)

Other emoticons encountered in the message corpus were:

:-        incomplete smiley
(-:       reverse smiley
:>        smiley variation
(^-^)     round smile
:)~       smiley with tongue
:(        frown
8-(       frown variation

Also encountered and included in the emoticon total were the following non-graphic variations:


If the number of messages asking for clarification of the meaning of abbreviations and emoticons is any indication, the continuing rapid growth of computer networks is producing a steady increase in the proportion of users unfamiliar with such devices, and this may be one reason for the low incidence.

8. Quotations

Of the 500 messages in the corpus, 23 (5%) contained quotations from previous messages. Quotations from books, magazines, and other sources were not counted.

None of the 23 messages used the standard convention of bracketing the quotation in quotation marks. All used a variety of methods ranging from bracketing with one or more symbols, as in:

<<Re Heisig's 'semi-conventional' approach to
explaining kanji radicals.>>

>>>1. I think any discussion of confidential OT material in this topic is
inappropriate, since people like me may read it.<<<<

>>> All I can wonder about a person with so much bad feeling toward Scn is
WHAT did THEY DO to the CofS ?  Don't tell _me_ the Overt- motivator sequence
is a bunch of BS -- I see it in operation all the time -- even with myself!<<<

to marking the first line of the quotation with a symbol, as in:

> LC III systems...$997 for the 4/80 plus around $590 for the monitor.
>>"I haven't seen it in person, but Gary has!"

Another technique was to mark the beginning of each line of the quotation with a symbol, in imitation of the automatic quotation formatting available on some BBSs and networks (though not on GEnie).

>The character whose reading is "shu" means "lord."  "jin" is person. Put
>'em together and whaddaya got:  master.

>>>I think the fact that Hubbard went exterior for the first
>>>time in the early 80's -- that's what he told his
>>>examiner Kima Douglas after a solo session where he saw the
>>>side of a building and the moon -- speaks volumes for what
>>>one can expect from the L's and other expensive upper level

The low incidence of quotations was one of the major surprises of this study. Quotations play a valuable role in establishing continuity of thread. Although regular readers of a fast-developing topic may be able to associate new messages with previous postings, the same cannot be said for new or sporadic readers.

It is difficult indeed to account for this unexpected finding. A lack of familiarity with bulletin board conventions may be one reason. Another may the physical difficulty of inserting quotations into text.

For users composing messages online, the only way to generate a quotation is to cut and paste from a message still displayed on the screen. Not all computers or telecommunication software will, however, support this function. A less attractive alternative is to retype the relevant section manually.

For users who download messages in bulk, and then compose replies offline, formatting quotations is made easy by the sophisticated word processing software available for this purpose.

If the source of the quotation is a message posted several days (sometimes several weeks) earlier, it can only be accessed if the user is keeping an archive file of previous messages in the relevant topic. Because of the enormous amount of data involved in a cumulative storage of bulletin board traffic, not many users will choose this option. This may be another reason for the surprisingly low incidence of quotations in the message corpus.


In the process of analysing the message corpus, it soon became evident that a small group of active users was responsible for a large proportion of the messages.

It has often been said that for every user who posts a message on a bulletin board, there are ten (some put the figure at twenty or more) who limit their participation to reading. Such passive users are jokingly referred to as 'lurkers', or ROMers, the latter being an acronym of Read-Only Mode, and perhaps a play on the computer acronym ROM (Read-Only Memory).

It has further been said that for every user who reads a message on a bulletin board, there are at least two or three who access the system for the sole purpose of downloading free Public Domain or Shareware software.

With a relatively small number of users responsible for most of the traffic on a bulletin board, it becomes difficult to define what is or is not representative. It is for this reason that the original plan of analysing emphasis, abbreviation, and emoticon usage was abandoned when it became clear that any such statistical analysis would have unduly reflected the personal preferences of a handful of users.

To a lesser extent, the same can be said for any statistical analysis of, for example, overall style, or use of salutations, signatures, etc.

For this reason, the results of the present study cannot be said to be definitive. Further studies need to be carried out, and ways need to be found to counter the bias mentioned above.

It was at first thought that a sample of 500 messages would be sufficient to provide an accurate assessment of message formatting on bulletin boards. It is now thought that a far greater sample of several thousand messages is required.

The random selection of messages from a corpus of this size would perhaps result in a more representative overall sample.


The present study confirmed that the Full Block style was the most common method of message formatting on bulletin boards, used in 83% of all messages.

Sixty-one per cent of messages contained a salutation, signature, or combination of both. Only 12 of the 500 messages in the corpus (2%) contained the equivalent of a complimentary close. This result confirms the important function salutations and signatures serve in identifying both the addressor and addressee of a message. Conversely, the low incidence of complimentary closes would seem to indicate that this traditional letter form serves little or no function in modern electronic communication.

The frequency of both abbreviation and emoticon use was lower than expected, and calls for further study and analysis.

The surprisingly low incidence of quotations may be an indication of user unfamiliarity with this convention, or of the physical difficulty of accessing and formatting quotations.

A follow-up study of a random sample from a larger corpus of messages may help to clarify doubts raised about the representative nature of the present sample.


1 Buda, J. K. "Electronic Network Communication." Otsuma Women's University Annual Report: Humanities and Social Sciences XXIII (1991): pp. 73-90.

2 Most heavy-traffic GEnie RTs appoint category leaders to monitor topic messages and either warn users of topic drift, or move inappropriate messages to other topics. Users often refer to these category leaders as 'topic cops'.

3 Buda, p. 88.

4 Such exchanges are usually referred to as 'flames'. For an example of a typical flame, see Buda, pp. 83-84.

Source: The Waseda Review, No. 25, 1994