In praise of practical e-mail hygiene

Martin Vermeer

The CEO of Foo Software Inc plans to send a business letter to his colleague at Bar Microsystems Inc. So he types out the text of the letter, goes to the video room, puts it under the camera and starts it running. He figures that two minutes of recording should be enough to read the letter - it's not a long one.

He slides the recorded cassette into a padded envelope, puts it through the stamping machine, and drops it off at the mailing desk.


Something like this is, in an allegorical sense, going on all the time in the world out there. I only have to go though my inbox folder to see that the MIME protocol - Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions - which makes e-mail attachments possible, could just as well read ``Microsoft Internet Mail Extensions''. The standard, provided originally to facilitate exchange of audiovisual material in addition to text, is being massively abused. The industry's role is that of enabler, dangling the lure of convenience, getting their hapless users hooked by making it insidiously easy to send, e.g., Word documents as mail attachments. Dead easy. Using possibly more suitable formats requires extra steps.

Adding insult to injury, some 80% of the MicrosoftTM WordTM attachments that I receive are actually plain text files ``inside''. They contain no graphic-like information that would make the use of a more advanced format necessary. Well, perhaps an occasional logo that I have seen many times before.

Why is this bad?

And all this is so unnecessary! You can always write a plaintext document in a simple editor, such as the Notepad coming with WindowsTM. Most e-mail user programs (clients) contain their own simple plaintext editors. Even if you already have a word processor document, you can easily export it as plaintext. And when mentioning simple plaintext editors: many people in the Windows environment just have no mental image of what an advanced plaintext editor can be like.

Of course there is a variety of circumstances where sending a word processor document by e-mail makes good sense: in-house collaborative writing, if the recipient has to work further on the document, or if it contains essential layout or graphic elements not well presentable in plaintext. In the latter case alternatives exist worthy of consideration, like PostScriptTM, PDFTM or HTML. Consider also rtf (Rich Text Format), which doesn't have the virus and privacy problems mentioned above and is more widely understood than the native binary formats.

Is this a computer literacy issue? That surely comes into it. I would rather call it an awareness issue. I find that most people are prepared to listen and learn, especially if document format issues have bitten them before. I sometimes try to "house-train" computing-naive people I know on this, and found explaining what I mean by plaintext an amusing but occasionally exasperating experience. Some of my correspondents think it means a Word document without pictures or embedded objects. Or a Word document written completely in the ``Normal'' style - close, but no cigar. Sometimes it feels almost easier to explain the notion of exporting to HTML!

These people seem to live in a matrix where documents are the way they appear on the screen rather than the way they are stored on the hard disk. Many are not even clearly aware of having a hard disk. The desktop environment designers from Apple and Microsoft that set out more than a decade ago to create a desktop capable of being operated by naive users, have been successful beyond their wildest dreams: many of today's computer desktops are indeed operated by near functional computer illiterates. Many people are receptive and willing to learn -- but who is teaching. Here is a huge scope for practically useful advocacy and education work.

As for those few that are aware of it but are completely shameless about it, as if it were quantum chromodynamics and not part of our workaday environment, it's way more basic. It's an attitude thing.

Putting it bluntly (something I am good at :-), by ignoring the simple truths above you expose yourself to the suspicion - nay, certitude - of not knowing how to behave in company, of lacking basic social skills. The amount of technical knowledge involved is so relatively modest after all. And no, being helpless around computing machinery is not a charming personality trait. Help can be found and habits acquired if deemed important enough, as one would with cars, dogs or girl friends.

Unnecessarily sending a word processor format attachment instead of a clean, universally legible plaintext file is inconsiderate and lazy, a form of neglect of elementary hygiene rules somewhat like neglecting your own personal hygiene. People practicing this may by some be felt to be colourful personalities, but you wouldn't want them to be your GP, your hairdresser or (shudder!) your dentist, now would you?

It goes against the stream - and against the commercial interests that be -, but needs to be said. The argument is hardly new to this audience but bears repeating. Let's try to make this complex world a little simpler and a more pleasant place to exist in. That's what social convention is for.

So, doth and sayeth forth. Leave about for friends and colleagues to read. Make aware. Teach. Advocate. Convert. Preach. Pontificate. Nag. Flame when appropriate (but watch the temperature :). Use as .signature. And practice, of course.

plaintext -- Don't Settle For More!

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