Horseshoes On Your Car

How to Use Email: a few “Duhs”

Most of you know that I’m the announcement dude for a large listserve or two, and know to send me things that you’d like to be widely distributed, especially to local Greens.

What you might not know is what’s involved in keeping a large announcement listserve functioning.  Keeping subscribers is the biggest concern.  The only way to keep people on a listserve is to deliver a high-quality product.  That means, among other things:

– I monitor email traffic, on the order of around 100
messages a day, sifting out what’s worth passing on.

– The number of messages sent to the announcement
list is not excessive.

– The information sent is reasonably reliable.

– The messages are easy to read and understand.

Focusing on that last thing on the list, there is only one really effective way to send an email message to hundreds of people whom you don’t know.  It’s also, generally, the best way to send email in any case, with rare exceptions.  I’ve described it many times to many people, but I sometimes wonder whether I’m speaking a foreign language when I do.

One more time:  plain text in the body of the message, with fairly narrow margins (55 characters or so) created by line breaks.  Just as if you typed it on a typewriter:  Use the carriage return (hit Enter).

This allows people to view it in a fairly narrow window, or in a wide window without having lines stretching across a wide screen, and allows you to roughly predict the horizontal placement of things when they display.  People can also forward it or reply to it without the lines getting too messy with the extra “>>>” and all that gets added sometimes.

No matter how I say this, I still see many announcements coming to me in HTML, “Rich Text”,  or much worse, so I’ll try to explain some more here.  I really want to hear from you all if you don’t understand.


It’s a new world, folks, and some things are really obvious to someone who has been using email for a few years.

For the last few centuries, nearly all words that were worth recording (and many that were not) have been adapted to the medium of ink stains on paper.  That time is rapidly drawing to a close.

There are still good uses for paper.  For instance, a snailmail letter generally gets much more attention than an email, but web sites and email have taken over huge parts of the niche once occupied by dead trees.  It’s a trend that will continue indefinitely.  Paper (the word derived from “papyrus”) might never disappear entirely.  There are still people pressing patterns into clay, or writing with quills and brushes on parchment, but these are rather specialized activities, eh?  Not exactly part of everyone’s daily life.

So here’s the problem:  I can’t count the number of times people have sent me an email announcement, presumably for mass distribution, in the form of a file attachment in MSWord, PDF, or (God help us) JPEG format.  Sometimes a rather large file.  In most cases, this is like nailing horseshoes on your car’s tires.

There is only a very specific case in which this makes sense.  All of the following conditions must be met:

(1)  All the recipients have been chosen as people likely to
…….actually take that attachment and print it out for paper

(2)  Either you know that they all have broadband
…….connections and recent computers and don’t mind
…….receiving large files, or the attachment is not too big.
…….Let’s say, no more than about 300 KB.

(3)  If you expect me to forward it, the email announcement
…….is complete in the body of the message, independent
…….of the attachment, written out in plain text.

(4)  The body of the email gives enough information about
…….the attachment that most of the recipients will trust it
…….enough to open it.

To make this clear, maybe I need to recite some basic computer lore…….

Attachments in General

Generally, this is a way to send an extra file that’s in a different format from the message body.  It is useful in certain situations, but a mass mailing is not one of them.

By far the most common way that a virus is spread is through an email attachment.  Knowing this, people with a clue are wary of opening attachments that they receive.  They know that spam bots can forge the “From” line of an email, so seeing that it comes from a friend means nothing.  If you want your message to get wide distribution, an attachment is not the way to do it.

Most large listserves, such as we usually use for sending to hundreds of recipients, are set to exclude attachments.  If I receive an MSWord attachment as an announcement, that means copying & pasting the text into the body of the message, and then lots of finger work to make it look decent in plain text.  It would have to be something REALLY important to make me want to do this.

Some email clients, under some conditions, seem to have the “forward” function default to sending the forwarded message as an attachment.  It might take some messing about with the “options” to overcome this default, but it’s worth it.

Data formats

Different data formats are used for different purposes, designed to be used by different software:

MSWord – This is only one brand of many that are called “word processor” applications, the name derived from the old programmable typewriters that lived from about 1975 to 1990.  Word processors are great for anything that you plan to print on paper, and good for nothing else.

A page full of words in MSWord can take up several times the data space that the same words in plain text take up.  If you stick graphics in what you’re planning to print, this can become a factor of hundreds.  Graphics generally take up many times the data space that text takes up.

Believe it or not, not everyone can read files in MSWord format.  Once upon a time, it came as standard software on nearly all IBM compatibles, but that time is long gone.  Many people get along quite well with something much cheaper, like MSWorks.  If someone has an early version of MSWord, it might not be able to read the later formats, or it could read them imperfectly.

There are also some security concerns about MSWord.  Remember the embarrassment that Tony Blair suffered a few years ago when an MSWord file became available, showing the previous generations of editing that some of the wording went through.  How did you think the “undo” and “autosave” functions worked?  Earlier versions of your document are being saved, sometimes right there in the same file with your final version.  MSWord also, like many common MS applications, is very bound up with the Windows operating system.  Commands buried in an MSWord document are what some viruses use to mess up your system.

RTF – “Rich Text Format” is an optional format that most word processors can save files into, and is ostensibly readable by nearly all word processors.  It allows you to compose something with the fancy stuff like bold, italics, different fonts, etc. and still have it readable by nearly everyone.  It is still adapted to printing, though, and translation from a particular word processor format into RTF is imperfect.

HTML – “Hypertext Markup Language” is what web pages are written in, ostensibly readable by any web browser.

In recent times, many email interfaces allow you to write, or even default to writing, the body of your email message in HTML or some kind of “Rich Text” format.  This is what allows you to compose email messages with bold, italic, different sizes, graphics, yadayada…. and it is a VERY BAD IDEA, unless there’s a particular reason to do the fancy stuff.

Not only do these other formats take up more data space than plain text, but there’s no guarantee about how they will display on an unknown person’s computer.  A web page developer needs to test his HTML pages in several browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, Chrome) to make sure they look ok in all of them before uploading.  There are many more different email interfaces floating around than web browsers.

HTML can also harbor invisible commands that might not strictly be called “viruses”, but can really screw up your operations.  Some security-conscious people refuse to receive any email in HTML.  It’s best to keep all data in the simplest format possible for the purpose.

PDF – Back in the day, PC’s and Macs couldn’t talk to each other, except maybe in plain text.  They used entirely different data formats for most purposes.  PDF was useful as a printable file across platforms, and eventually became a standard.  It is much better than MSWord, if you must send a file set up for printing.  Depending on just what you do with it, and I’ve never worked with Adobe stuff enough to describe it well, PDF format is likely to take up much less data space than MSWord.

JPEG – This is a format designed only for graphics.  It’s most commonly used for photographs and graphics on web pages.  Once in a while, I see a flyer that’s been saved entirely as one big JPEG file.  I don’t understand this.  It’s impossible to even copy & paste the text from it, if one wanted to go through that work to make a plain text message out of it.

File Size

There are still people using slow dialup connections.  Maybe not many in major urban areas, but you never know.  On a list of several hundred recipients, there will be at least some dozens of dialup users, who will wait forever for a file of a few hundred KB or more to come over.  Time is more than money:  It is the stuff life is made of, as Poor Richard said.

If you’re enough of a noob not to know how to find out how large a file is, please find out.  There are enough different situations that I can’t cover them all with instructions here, but on a PC, for lack of a better idea, you can find the file in “My Computer” or “Windows Explorer”.

Comments, or particular questions about this subject matter, are very welcome.  I could even be wrong about something here.  Stranger things have happened.

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5 Responses to Horseshoes On Your Car

  1. Tom says:

    What a valuable teacher you are. Not one out of place word. Well said…and complete. A virtual diy lesson on the basics of e-mail. Thank you.

  2. Ed says:

    Thanks. i’ll put this on a word file so I can refer back to it. I just have to figure out where to save it.

  3. Mudge says:

    I hope Ed is joking. If not, I guess I need to explain some more.

  4. Pingback: Not a Techie | kitchenmudge

  5. Pingback: Not a Techie | kitchenmudge

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