If I walked up to you and said, "I'm taking my son to the movies today," would you then reply to me with, "Do you think hamburgers are better with cheese?" Not likely. Most likely your reply would be something about the movies, thus staying on topic. And if you wanted to talk about cheeseburgers you would change the topic and we would move on.
So, if you wouldn't do this in face to face conversations why is it OK to do in e-mail or online conversations? It isn't. Following are several examples of where I see people doing this exact thing in day-to-day online conversations.
- Mailing Lists: There are more than 30,000 genealogy mailing lists devoted to specific topics, localities, or surnames. People frequently join mailing lists and participate incorrectly. Sometimes messages are sent that are off-topic. Sometimes people reply with unrelated questions or comments to messages for specific topics. And people often send new messages to the mailing list by replying to a pre-existing message, so that the "RE: Subject Line" appears in their new message. Solutions: Find a mailing list for the topic you need and post your message there instead. Don't reply to messages unless you're actually replying to *that* topic. Start new e-mail messages to begin a new conversation and topic.
- Message Boards: Ditto the points made above. Message boards (some call them "forums") have the same issues as mailing lists. The difference is that you receive mailing list posts by e-mail, but you have to visit a message board to read and participate.
- E-mail: Sometimes an e-mail message, especially a genealogical query, will contain numerous topics or questions. Often, replies to such e-mails will address one or two of the topics/questions, but not all of them. As the replies go back and forth between the correspondents threads of conversation are lost, points are not made, and answers are not given. And sometimes an e-mail message is sent about the movies and the reply comes back about cheeseburgers. Solutions: Before you reply think about what you read and be sure to read it carefully—more than once if necessary. When writing an e-mail query stick to one topic per message. Or if you have three questions about an ancestor, separate them into three paragraphs that stand out and indicate separate replies for each would be best. And when you start a new conversation, start a new e-mail with a new subject line. If your conversation has changed topics it is okay to change the subject line to reflect the new topic.
- Blogs: A blog is a personal online diary. Some people use them to post articles, to post genealogical findings, or as a substitute for a traditional web site. But the original concept is the same—messages on the blog are posted by the author. The nature of blogs allows for readers to post comments on blog entries. Blog authors can allow or reject those comments if they like. A blog is not a place for people to post comments on unrelated topics. A blog is not a place to ask unrelated questions. A blog is not a place for a reader to post a new topic. Since I started this blog I've rejected several messages that were attempts to contact me rather than actual comments on the topic the comment was attached to. Hey, if you want to e-mail me, then go through the web site and regular e-mail. If you have a comment on the topic, then use that blog feature. Otherwise, look for another more appropriate way to communicate with the author or find an answer to your question.
Overall, the theme here should be one of courtesy and common sense. Before you post a message anywhere ask yourself these questions:
- Is my question relevant to the topic?
- Am I sending my question/comment to the correct person or group?
- Is there a better place I should take this conversation?
- Should I start a new topic or separate topics?
- Does my subject line and conversation thread reflect the intent of the original conversation or the purpose of the mailing list, message board, e-mail , or blog?
- If I were at the receiving end of my message would it seem appropriate and would it make sense?
All that said, this is my official rule for this blog: if you comment on my posts make sure that your comments or questions relate to the topic. If you post a comment that doesn't match the original topic I will reject the post. As simple as that—let's stay on topic folks!