Rant: Stupid Email Formatting

I just booked a flight online. I printed the confirmation email and it went 16 pages, mostly full of HTML garbage, before I stopped it.

When all email was plain text messages could be read by any email software. The widespread move to HTML formatting has been a step backward. In exchange for nice formatting we get software-compatibility issues, spam and occasional malicious code. People like me who prefer plain-text email clients have to be careful when we print messages. Forwarding or replying to HTML email involves extra editing to delete the HTML code. (If you don’t delete it, any exchange of more than a couple of messages becomes difficult to read and the message file balloons in size.) Popular email software uses HTML formatting by default; asking correspondents to deactivate it is an exercise in futility.

Increasingly I am using webmail interfaces to screen my mail. Let someone else’s server deal with the HTML crap, image-attached spam and viruses. I still use a 1995 version of Eudora Light to download the email that I actually want, but I feel like a Luddite. Email used to be plain, easy and smart. Now it is often pretty, complex and stupid. I can live without this kind of progress.

9 thoughts on “Rant: Stupid Email Formatting”

  1. Screen-capture software is a good way around this annoyance. Just scroll your browser so the window shows the portion you need, then “snap” the screen and save the resulting graphic file for a good vidual record. Several such programs are listed in the freeware section at Snapfiles.com

  2. Another problem with HTML mail is that it can embed links which connect to a server when the HTML is rendered. The code will inform the server which email addresses are live and which aren’t setting you up for a deluge of junk mail.

  3. Rant Start: I’ll join in. I just signed off from several years taking part in an e-mail discussion group that pre-dates the Web. Why? Because everyone on the list now insists on sending huge, messy, unreadable HTML emails, even though the “rules” of the group forbid such input. When I complained, the moderator said that we had to “keep up with the times”. Sorry, but I cannot take part in a “discussion” that is 90% tags and junk. The worse offender? People sending from their Macs. Rand End:

  4. There’s one forum I post at that’s been around for about 8 years. The community is pretty tight-knit even though our only common thread is the video game we play. I’ve probably met over 300 of the others who post there (and married one of them!)

    The thing I like the most about that place, unlike many other forums, is the simplicity. No signatures are allowed; each person has a 64×64 pixel image (limited to 15 KB) under their name and no more. In an average discussion, 95% or more of the screen space is filled with the actual discussion. I go to other places and 3/4 of my screen is filled with someone’s huge signature with a 500 KB animated gif and a badly formatted HTML table filled with their favorite quotes and system specs, as if we need to see that information every single time someone posts. I have to dig just to find the text of the actual discussion.

    It always amazes me how badly non-functional people are willing to make their software / web page / discussion forum just so they can add more graphics. The level of formatting we have in comments here is more than adequate for just about everything I do online — plain text, a little bit of highlighting, and the ability to create links is all most of us need. In a more professional context, maybe a few small images and a header and footer should be added to create some visual interest, but it’s too bad so many companies go so far beyond that.

  5. plain text is the way to go. heck, i don’t even capitalize when typing.

    i figure it saves space on the internet.

    (no, not really… geez!)

  6. I’m no luddite, (for years I was on the bleeding edge of software, occasionally being a beta site.)

    My mail clients are set to send PLAIN TEXT. Otherwise, some reader out there will screw up HTML pages, its going to happen.

    Might I also suggest a text level prescreener called jbmail. It’s great for sorting thru junk mail and cases where you’re on a mailing list with several postings per day.

  7. I had a little bit of a shock when I went off to college and found that my high-school papers (written in Microsoft Word) weren’t openable on the version of Microsoft Word that the college had. It was a realization that electronic files aren’t written out and saved in any kind of objective sense — instead, they’re _encoded,_ and the code can break or get lost with time. In the physical world, a document is written on a substrate, and as long as the substrate exists, the document will be approximately as readable as on the day it was created. In the electronic world, interaction with the document is mediated by a reader, and a document can become unusable even if neither you nor it has changed since the time of writing, because the reader can’t interpret it correctly anymore.

    Since then, I’ve tried to put what intellectual output I have in a form as close as possible to plaintext ASCII. I figure that as long as computers exist, _something_ will be able to read ASCII. (To be fair, \Latex and HTML markup will probably be readable for the forseeable future, too, since the actual files are written in plaintext ASCII.)

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