Tony's Rantings, Ravings and Droolings

Ugly Emails

I wanted to mention something about email that probably a lot of you have not thought about. It is one of those things that falls into the "netiquette" category. ("Netiquette" being the etiquette of on-line interactions.)

The History

Email was created to specifically be plain text messages because it was the simplest and most commonly available format regardless of the computer being used, the operating system or even the application software.

As email became more and more of a mass communication tool, people began to stretch email beyond its original purposes, most specifically, the additions of email attachments.

This in itself was a good thing for sending truly non-text data using regular text emails. A standard way of doing this was defined so everyone could agree on the proper way to send these attachments. This is called Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension Output, a.k.a. MIME Attachments. (By the way, it is somewhat debatable whether MIME is a good thing or not, since this is the way in which many email viruses get to spread.)

The Problem

The problem here is that very often this attachment mechanism is abused or even ignored by email programs, so that things that are really just plain text emails start to get sent as attachments instead of plain text that they should be. The real offenders are those email programs that send non-text emails without using the standard MIME encoding mechanism at all.

The most common offender of this are email programs that send HTML formatted messages (the code that web pages are encoded in) that is really nothing but plain text, but in a convoluted language. Worse than this, often the email program does not even use the standard MIME encoding scheme. I get these sorts of emails all the time, and since I do not use a web browser to view my email, the email looks like a complete jumbled mess and is unreadable. HTML was designed for web pages, NOT emails!

Often the user is not even aware of the fact that they are sending garbled messages, or "ugly emails". If they use a web browser that sends HTML and the receiver uses a web browser to view the email, the ugliness of the actual email is hidden from both parties. It is only when someone who chooses to view their email as plain text that the headaches begin.

The Solution

If you are sending a regular email that contains only a text message, it is only polite to actually send a plain text message. Someone like myself that doesn't use a web browser to look at their email, will eventually be able to get the incomprehensible HTML into a file and then fire up a web browser to see its content, but this is an awkward and time consuming way to view email (and especially annoying when there is nothing but plain text in the email anyway). Thus, the user, usually unbeknownst to them, is sending emails that makes someone else have to do a lot of work. Not a polite way to interact.

You might say, "Hey, Cassandra, this is the 21st century, use a web browser for your email." If you did say this, you would be exposing your ignorance, and also risk upsetting me, which itself would be kind of a rude thing all by itself. The reality is that using a web browser email program is slower to use, more complex, not as flexible and not as universal as relying on a program that actually uses plain text.

The difference between a web browser email client and a text-based one is a classic example where one medium is best for a novice because it is easier to learn how to use, and the other best suited to an expert being quicker and more flexible. Email itself is flexible enough to allow both types of people to interact, but only if both sides stick to the agreed upon "rules" of email.

How to "Play Nice"

If you want to find out if you ae sending rude emails, you can do this:

  1. Send me an email, but make specifically sure to set the subject of the email to:
          Testing: Is my email ugly?
    If you do not do this, and you happen to be sending ugly emails, then I'll have to go through the awkward process of deciphering your email before I realize what your question was. With this subject I can immediately see if it is ugly and quickly send a reply.
  2. Put some plain text message in the body of the message. It doesn't matter what it is as long as there is some text.
  3. I'll reply letting you know the results.

If you are sending ugly email, then the next step for you to do is to set your email client software so that you begin to "play nice" with the rest of the connected world. Unfortunately, there are too many email programs for me to enumerate all the possible ways this might be done. Chances are, if you are using a web browser, that there is a setting somewhere, either in the web browser itself, or in the web-based email program, that will allow you to switch from sending HTML messages to plain text messages.

You can play around with these settings and send me another email with the same subject line as above to see if you have fixed the problem. Although replying to these emails will take some of my time, I am happy to invest it in making the net a more friendly place.