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[wlug] Mailing list etiquette (was Re: Sudo)

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Oliver Jones oliver@d...
Tue Apr 5 13:39:44 NZST 2005

Daniel, while I do not disagree with you regarding limiting posts to
ASCII on this mailing list, there are a number of good reasons to use
HTML or rich text emails.  So I thought I'd provide a counter opinion

Most complaints I see regarding HTML mail stem from users using text
mode MUAs like mutt.  While I'm sure mutt is a great mail reader (I used
elm and pine for a long time myself) it is rather limited when
displaying html, hence people bitching about it.  You are also correct
in stating that some mailing list digest systems don't deal with HTML
very well.

But none of these problems are really the fault of a person who is
posting in HTML.  It would be perfectly feasible for mutt to render HTML
in text mode.  Lynx and elinks do this fine and it would work perfectly
for most non-spam/marketing HTML email.  Similarly it would be perfectly
feasible for a mail digest application to correctly encapsulate the HTML
so as to avoid corruption issues.  The best mailing list digest systems
I've seen package each mail as a separate mime entity.  This allows
smart MUAs to provide a mailbox like UI to the digest message.  It also
allows you to use MUA threading support.  Which is much better than one
plain text digest of all the messages in timestamp order.

What you're really saying to people when you ask them to post in 7bit
ASCII is, "my software lacks features capable of reading your mail
successfully, please change your behaviour to suit my requirements".

This is a fairly selfish position to take.  Similarly refusing to change
when people make this request politely is also fairly selfish.
Unfortunately very few MUAs offer the feature marking individual
addresses as "plain text" addresses.  Most go the other way, assume
plain text and mark addresses as capable of HTML email receipt, which I
believe is backwards.  The vast majority now can accept HTML, the
minority prefer plain text.

Also, asking people to post in 7bit ASCII (or ISO-8859), while being the
lowest common denominator, limits mail to English or Latin based
European languages.  We live in a multicultural world so requests should
really be for people to use Unicode, eg, UTF-8 which is backwards
compatible with ASCII.

A lot of new users have ventured forth onto the Internet in the last
decade and Internet software has proliferated to accommodate them.  Very
few recent (or even old hand) Internet users will know that * means
bold, / means italics, and _ means underline in ASCII emails.  (eg,
*bold* /italic/ _underline_).  Instead they use features supplied by
their MUAs to do the same.  All very WYSIWYG.  This is entirely
understandable and is in fact preferable.  When indexing mail with a
computer I'd much rather the mail was formatted in XHTML than plain

Which leads me into a discussion on the benefits of HTML (or rather
XHTML) formatted email.

There are a number of things that XHTML mail does better than plain
text.  <em>emphasis</em> means much more to a computer than *emphasis*.
It is structured, and standardized.  Similarly <h1>Heading</h1> means
more than:


So just like on the web, using XHTML provides a parseable system for
computer aided search.  Google is already trying to provide searchable
email archiving system with their Gmail product.  I can see this
extending to desktop MUAs.  Systems like Beagle would benefit from XHTML
formatted mail.  Similarly on-line mailing list archives could also
benefit from semantic context in emails to aid in search and cross

Another area where HTML email excels is in quoting previous messages.
Many current MUAs break hideously when parsing previous text messages.
How many of you have seen deep quotes go very bad with results like

> > > > > people whose mailers don't understand 
> the > > > > format you
>  use to read your 
> email. While you can > > > > feel free to
>  inconvenience your friends as much as 

Not very fun eh.  Well with XHTML you can just <blockquote> everything
and as long as the MUA nests them correctly the recipients MUA can flow
everything very nicely.  In fact, with the appropriate attributes and
MUA support, quoted chucks can be colour coded and have author
information attached so you even know who is quoting who.

Sure there are a few downsides to XHTML.  The one most people pull out
is the size of the message.  HTML formatted mail increases file size.
It has to because it is adding information.  Only when the senders MUA
is a broken piece of junk (like Outlook) does this become a major
problem though.  

The other major downside is patchy MUA support.  Text mode MUAs don't
seem to support HTML mail very well.  Even GUI readers like Evolution
(what I use) have pretty crappy HTML support.  Products like Thunderbird
are much better.  It is just a mater of time and developer will to see
excellent HTML or Rich Text mail support in the most common MUAs.

My basic point here is that HTML mail in and of itself is not bad.  In
fact to is highly beneficial in a number of areas.  The problem is the
lack of proper implementation standards and the lack of MUAs which
implement any standards were they to exist.

So while politely asking posters to use a common denominator like ASCII
is all well and good while we lack decent MUAs it is not a solution.  It
is just a stop gap that is avoiding the problem.


> When you post in HTML or RTF, or to spell it out clearly, in anything 
> that isn't plain ASCII or ISO-8859, you make it significantly harder for 
> people whose mailers don't understand the format you use to read your 
> email. While you can feel free to inconvenience your friends as much as 
> you like, you should not assume that everyone on a mailinglist will have 
> the ability to read whatever non-basic format you post in.
> Now, you might argue that "all modern email clients support HTML, so why 
> can't I use it?". Quite simply, not everyone runs an email client that 
> supports HTML. Or they've disabled it.   I'd also suggest that on a LUG 
> mailing list especially, the proportion of users with email clients that 
> will not parse HTML is considerably higher than on your typical mailing 
> list.
> If someone does have a client that doesn't have HTML read support, or if 
> they have disabled it, they end up having to read the raw HTML to read 
> your post. Yes, I can parse HTML. No, I don't want to unless I'm 
> developing a webpage. I'll skip an HTML only email sooner than read it, 
> especially with the cluttered HTML most email clients generate. This is 
> mitigated somewhat by sending HTML and plain blocks, but you don't 
> really gain much from HTML emails.

> Basically, when posting to a mailing list, you're taking part in a 
> community of peers. By sending HTML only emails, you're doing something 
> equivalent to interrupting people's conversations in loud Swahili.
> I have to say here that I use thunderbird, which seems to like sending 
> in HTML and plain by default, and will reply to HTML in HTML and plain 
> by default. This isn't my preferred choice!

                   Oliver Jones » Roving Code Warrior
   oliver@d... » +64 (21) 41 2238 » 

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