Thoughts on Email

Published on June 10, 2008 (↻ September 26, 2023), filed under (RSS feed for all categories).

Email was, is, and will remain the Web’s true killer application, but spam, top-posting, incompetent use of newsletters, and the HTML email problem mean serious challenges. I can’t but share a few thoughts.

Spam Won’t Die

We all know that. While Symantec says that 72% of all checked mail was spam in 2007, Spamhaus talks about 90-95%, with both anticipating a growing amount of spam. Spammers must make a lot of money out of this stuff, at least money to obtain the means to bring down Blue Security in 2006. I vividly remember the time as I used to be a Blue Frog user (whose system worked, at first). What spam requires are more sophisticated algorithms as well as more teaching of people how to manage it, as spam handling is a key aspect of the information management skills needed today.

Top-Posting Must Die

May I hand over to Joe Clark? Undoubtedly, Joe is passionate about convincing people to use email the right way. I am concerned about this as well, because many, many, many people seem to just hit “Reply” and pollute inboxes by words already spoken, in a way that translates to “answer, answer, answer, question, question, question, followed by n answers before other questions or statements” (unlike, if this sounds too familiar, “question, answer, question, answer”). Some people seem to enjoy receiving forwarded conversations written this way, to figure out what was and is going on by reading from bottom to top… not quite, from bottom to not-quite bottom, from anywhere in the middle to somewhere higher—you name it. Stop top-posting, learn how to better write email.

The top-posting issue exists since the rise of email. The WardsWiki has some ancient tips online to “trim your posts”, as does Scott Norwood in his pre-2001 rant on quoting practices. People may want to read these documents rather than e.g. trying Gmail’s new “signatures tweaks” widget that puts the sender’s signature between answer and question (and even removes the standard dashes indicating the signature)… and I don’t feel sorry saying that.

Some Newsletters Deserve to Die

Newsletters! The best ones are mine and Jakob Nielsen’s. Cough 😉 Seriously, newsletters, and I refer to newsletters in general, continue to be poor in many respects, violating the simplest rules and ignoring many best practices. Quoting Jim Sterne at Usability Week 2005:

Email is:

  • the best bang for the buck,
  • the easiest to produce,
  • the cheapest to send,
  • the easiest to destroy your credibility.

HTML Emails Should Die

HTML mails are special. Regarding implementations, the situation got slightly better over the last years (I still remember 2003 when I briefly joined a major German newsletter specialist, back when work with email clients was true horror), but still there are many issues. I recently emphasized that less is still more, here meaning that focusing on plain-text mails might mean less work and provide better results, and I encourage to keep that in mind in this place as well. No matter what the Email Standards Projects accomplishes (let’s appreciate their work), better save the time and avoid sending HTML emails altogether.

This is “less and more” in action. I could have focused on discussing HTML mails from a web development point of view, but I didn’t bother. Plain-text often does the trick just perfectly, and thus there is no need to complain about ever more and more broken implementations, longer development times due to the mélange of document structure and presentation, reuse problems, &c. pp.

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About Me

Jens Oliver Meiert, on September 30, 2021.

I’m Jens (long: Jens Oliver Meiert), and I’m a frontend engineering leader and tech author/publisher. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google and as an engineering manager for companies like Miro, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma.

I love trying things, not only in web development (and engineering management), but also in other areas like philosophy. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.

If you want to do me a favor, interpret charitably (I speak three languages, and they can collide), yet be critical and give feedback for me to learn and improve. Thank you!

Comments (Closed)

  1. On June 10, 2008, 23:37 CEST, Dave said:

    I’ve never understood the impassioned statements I often see against top-posting. Top-posting makes sense to me, and reading top-posted conversations has never caused me any problems.

    I want to understand, though, so if you know of any strong explanations (maybe ones that have an example or don’t have name-calling), please share. : )

  2. On June 11, 2008, 0:47 CEST, Dominik said:

    You will never win the war against Top-Posting as long as all common E-Mail clients offer this solution by default.

    I was not part of the newsgroup generation, where this movement pretty much comes from, so I never felt that strong about it. I understand the reasoning but how can one even bring up the energy to convert people to use it.

    Funny sidenote: I actually tried replying to a business contact (who uses Notes) last week, directly putting my replies below the quoted sections of his mail. Guess what, he didn’t understand and sent it again, telling me that our mail server must be broken because it did just resend his original mail.

  3. On June 12, 2008, 13:32 CEST, Alan Gresley said:

    Because it’s hard to follow Dave 😊

    I’ve never understood the impassioned statements I often see against top-posting. Top-posting makes sense to me, and reading top-posted conversations has never caused me any problems.

    @Dave

  4. On June 12, 2008, 13:43 CEST, Alan Gresley said:

    @Jens

    I will certainly bookmark this page and refer to it.

    I am a administrators /owners of 4 mailing list, the first one from 2000. I saw the initial start of spam (2001) and the continuous rise of spam and the technology closely behind trying to combat it.

    I agree with you totally about top posting and HTML emails. I would like to add that the question, answer, whatever pollutes list archives, especially from subscribers that receive digest.

    Re: Digest No. 2008-0006 😊

  5. On June 13, 2008, 11:10 CEST, Jens Oliver Meiert said:

    Dave, I guess Alan already replied 😉

    Dominik, it’s a client thing as well, but good use of mail requires some work (which is quite worthwhile and, well, professional). The root problem may be (lack of) training again, even though it doesn’t require much to handle mail well.

    Alan, cheers! And of course, one argument that didn’t yet come up is the unnecessary waste of bandwidth. But instead of writing

    And, will you join us later?

    Yes.

    people still like to send the former 20 mails along, together with dup signatures and the like.

    (Where’s Joe!)

  6. On June 14, 2008, 15:11 CEST, Andrea Creviola said:

    Great article, I have already referred to it a few times. Although it’s hard to predict what will the future hold in the war with spam (personally I think it will continue for quite some time) the top-posting phenomenon should be fought at all costs. It’s really one of the oldest and most annoying problems with email. As far as HTML mails are concerned, it seems to me that in a couple of years more sensible standards will be developed and using HTML will be as good as plain-text emails.

  7. On August 1, 2008, 23:53 CEST, lazar said:

    This post has a ‘die’ theme. Why such negativity 😉

    Spam won’t die, but may get more expensive with better filtering:

    Currently the lowest rate seems to be about $200 to send a million spams. (…) But filtering out 95% of spam, for example, would increase the spammers’ cost to reach a given audience by a factor of 20…. (paul graham on spam)

    and another good idea by him:

    About 95% of spams contain links to web pages. If everyone who received a spam actually followed the links in it, the traffic would be a heavy burden on the spammers’ servers. (stop spam)

    But than again, how many people are actually going to open spam mail and read and click on links. so maybe not such a good idea…