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  • Email Is For Plain Text

    May 30, 2022

    Anyone that knows me, or has been keeping up on my blog, or has taken a single look at my website knows that I am an advocate for plain text over any other format if at all possible. That alone is enough for me to demand that people send me emails in plain text, and that alone should be enough for people to respect that.

    But that's not the only reason I think all emails should be plain text. Email was literally designed to transmit plain text. Everything else, like attachments, HTML, and any other extension to email you can think of, is just that: an extension. The email protocol was never intended to send binary files or HTML, it was intended to send plain text. Even that quoted-printable encoding is an extension to email that was never intended to be there.

    For that reason, I see no problem with the fact that my email client doesn't support MIME, HTML, or even quoted-printable. My email client supports plain text. That's it. When I view emails that are MIME emails, I look at the plain-text portion. If there isn't one, or if it's empty, your email is immediately discarded.

    If you want to send me a file, see if you can represent it as plain text and just put it in the body of your email. It's as simple as that. If you can't send me a document in plain text, I won't look at it, because I likely don't have the software necessary to do so. Pretty much every word processor has an option to output a plain text file from their proprietary formats.

    You may call me a radical, or just absurdly stubborn. And maybe I am. But I call it being intentional. I was talking today with my family about how I aim to use computers as they were intended. I don't want to be controlled by them. I know how people use social media, and I frankly think that social media is a huge waste of resources. I want to live a life of purpose and meaning, and technology makes it easy to lose both of those. When we spend all day staring at a screen, and communicating with each other over the internet, we lose the intimate connections that give us our humanity. It's well known that we often say things through a keyboard that we wouldn't in person.

    I try not to say anything I wouldn't say in person. Even though I think computers are really neat, and I'm studying them at the university, they are not my life, and I don't have my computers set up in a way that allows them to become my life. They are a tool to help me be more productive, but they are not my entire existence. I don't find my worth in social media. I don't find my hobbies and pasttimes in YouTube or Netflix.

    The way I use email is an extension of this mentality. I operate almost exclusively on an OpenBSD TTY, which means I can't even view PDFs like a "normal" person. The reason is that a fully text-based environment is boring. You can't get addicted to it. You can't find yourself mindlessly scrolling through Reddit or Instagram. You open it up to get your work done and when it's done, there's nothing more for you to do. There's no fancy graphics to entice you to stay. All you can do is stare at the prompt and think "what am I doing here?"

    So when I get HTML emails, or emails with attachments in proprietary formats, all I see is a big garbled wall of text that means nothing to me, because I am intentional about the way I use computers. It's even difficult for me to render PDFs, and that is in no way my fault. If you're going to be sharing data, you really can only afford to do so in a manner that every system can read, and only plain text is a format that every single system can read. Not everyone can render PDFs or even web pages. But a general-purpose operating system can hardly be considered such if it can't display plain text to some sort of output device.

    All of my most important documents are plain text. My resume? Plain text. My spreadsheets? Plain text, with the help of sc(1). All my blog posts, which contain the vast majority of my important writings? Those are plain text too. If I do need to render some fancy indentations and headers and footers and all that, I turn to groff(1), which takes plain text input, and can generate great plain text output. And the source code that makes it do that? That's plain text too. Provided I have a sufficiently complete base operating system to compile it—such as OpenBSD—I'm good to go.

    Anything more than plain text, and you're creating dependencies... dependencies that may not be satisfied on other people's machines. And that's why you should only be sending plain text emails. The ASCII Ribbon campaign might be able to offer you some more insight in this area, although I'd go a step further and say that MIME—the technology that allows file attachments in emails—is also unnecessary. If you really want to share a document, just put it in the body of the email as plain text.

    If it's a binary file—which you may want to rethink sending anyway—you can upload it to an FTP or web server and then drop a link in your email. Email was not intended to send files, so it is best not to try, because people like me that want to use computers the way they were originally intended are not going to go for that. There are plenty of great file transfer protocols out there—pick a standardized one and go with that. Don't try to stuff your files into an email, because that is extremely inappropriate.

    © 2019-2024 Jordan Bancino.