Is HTML-formatted e-mail still bad netiquette?
July 11, 2010 8:52 AM   Subscribe

Are there still good reasons not to send HTML-formatted e-mail? I know that for years it was considered bad netiquette to send HTML-formatted e-mail (especially if you were sending e-mail to someone new and you weren't sure if his or her e-mail client supported HTML). I'm starting to wonder, though, whether those 90s-era precautions are still as applicable today. (This would be for regular day-to-day e-mail—not bulk e-mail or the like.)

As best I can recall, the "use plain text for e-mail" arguments of the time seemed to fall into these categories:
  • "Not all desktop e-mail clients can read HTML-formatted e-mail."
  • "Some people might be reading e-mail on a smart phone (like a Palm VII) and those generally can't read HTML-formatted e-mail."
  • "If someone's reading e-mail with a text-based client (like Pine), that wouldn't be able to parse the HTML, either."
At the least, it seems that the first two arguments don't really hold any more. (From to Thunderbird to Gmail, I can't think of a single desktop e-mail client that can't read HTML-formatted e-mail. Same goes for smart phones like iPhones, Android devices, or Blackberries.)

As for text-based e-mail clients (like Pine or Mutt), are those still preferred by some people? (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) And if I may put on my nerd hat for a moment, would those clients still be okay anyway, assuming the sending e-mail client made use of MIME multipart/alternative to send the content in both HTML and plain text?

For anyone asking him- or herself, "Why is this guy so interested in HTML-formatted e-mail?", well, I guess I just get a kick out of typography—I like the idea of being able to select my own typefaces (tastefully, of course) and use real em-dash characters when they're needed. (I'm only interested in text—I have no plans on HTML for layout.) Even so, I don't want inconvenience anyone receiving my e-mails (which is why I'm asking about this).
posted by Handcoding to Computers & Internet (55 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Sylpheed didn't handle HTML mail a few years ago when I used it; it may now.

I know a number of people who use Gnus and Mutt. I don't think it's uncommon, depending on who you're sending mail to.

Gmail allows you to disable HTML in mail and use the text portion of the multipart message. I use that option.

In theory, MIME multipart/alternative should make this a non-issue. In practice, you should really check what the text part of a message looks like in your particular mail client — many do not do a good job of the conversion to text at all.

Lastly, and maybe you know this, but, as a broad generalization, and assuming that mail clients aren't really doing HTML5 yet, you can't pick your own typefaces; you can specify a named typeface, but if the recipient doesn't have the font installed (with the same name), they'll see some replacement font which may or may not look good.

Also, '—' is a perfectly good Unicode character and you should be able to use it in plain-text mail if you get the character encodings right.
posted by enn at 9:00 AM on July 11, 2010

Please don't! I specifically format all of my mail readers to read email only as plain text. If someone sends me HTML formatted email, I delete it and don't read it. Why? Because I can't, for all the code that the message is buried within.

Why do I want plain text email? It's not because I don't want to allow all of my friends and family to express themselves, but because I am in a hurry. I need to ensure that the email I read on my smartphone doesn't require that I scroll side to side. On my phone or on my laptop, I don't want to scan past images or headers or fancy pull quotes, and I really, really don't want to have to try to figure out how to make the text larger or smaller, or change the font so that I can read it.

Maybe your emails will beautiful, tasteful, easy to read and better than my standard plain text email client can display, but it doesn't matter. Others are often woefully the opposite and I have to configure my email client so that reading my email doesn't make me want to take an EMP to all electronics in a 90 mile radius.

If you're really concerned about typeface and presentation, make a website and provide a link. There's a time and place to put your own personal visual stamp on things -- that's on your own personal website, or in your own email client so that you can enjoy reading it, so that it suits your fancy. If you want people to actually read your email, send it in text.

Obviously, if you only ever send email to designery types who really care about typeface and presentation more than anything, please feel free to completely ignore me. I understand that there are some people for whom super-utilitarian computing is a bummer.
posted by pazazygeek at 9:03 AM on July 11, 2010 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Speaking as someone who sent out such an email weekly for six years, and who did this exact transition in ~ 2008, I'd say you can safely move beyond your three concerns listed above. Nobody is worrying about text-only clients in 2010.

Part of the reason is that the vanishingly-few (and very infrequently-used) clients that we think of as being text-only are actually capable of rendering simple HTML markup nowadays. Example: Pline, and its cousins WebPine and AlPine. Each of these is capable of differentiating H1, H2, italic, etc., even on -- wait for it -- a VT100 terminal. It does this by combining inverse, underline, centering, etc. Works surprisingly well. And means that doing the well-intentioned multi-part trick you mention above is probably time wasted.

But the transition to HTML mail is a tricky one. You'll have to decide whether you want to attach all images you use or host them yourself & refer to them with absolute URLs. The former results in larger messages, but the latter risks your recipients not being able to see any of your design.

Why's that? Because early on, spammers and other marketers realized that by including a small 1-pixel transparent gif with a unique name, they could track exactly who opened their missives -- as well as who got them forwarded -- as every attempt to open that email triggered a request for their tracking gif.

In response, nearly all email clients (web-based or microcomputer) disable any graphics referenced in emails. Users will have to whitelist your from address to see anything.

Also, you make mention of typefaces. Keep in mind support for advanced typography is way less advanced in email clients than on the web. No @font-face, no SIFR or other Flash technology, etc. If your font choices don't fall within what most users have, they won't see your design.

In fact, you may find that authoring anything really complex is more trouble than it's worth. Stick with tables -- div support is spotty. Use inline CSS -- external stylesheets won't load, and styles at the top work inconsistently. (See below for why. It's very interesting.) Yes, this means your code will be larger than it would have been for the equivalent webpage.

You know how to code for IE and Firefox, but how about Outlook Express, Outlook itself, Gmail,, and Eudora? (Don't laugh.) The biggest issue in the HTML email space right now is Microsoft's decision to switch to using Word (!?) as the HTML renderer in Outlook 2007 and up. Previous versions used the IE DLL's, and made for a somewhat-predictable experience. People are used to working around IE bugs, but not very many know how, why or where Word renders HTML. Much gnashing of teeth.

In fact, it's somewhat of a miracle that HTML email works at all. Think about today's users -- they're using Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, and other web-based readers. What do all these have in common? Well, there's already HTML and BODY tags in those pages -- to get you to the email reader! What should Gmail do when your HTML message waltzes in, complete with its own set of markup? Worse, let's say you used CSS to define an element as having an ID of #header -- but Gmail already had that defined for its own use. Or you styled UL's one way, assuming that you'd be working from a clean slate, but Yahoo is actually heavily styling unordered lists to make its navigation menu. What happens now?

The answer is: all these web email clients dynamically reformat everything they display. They will bend, break, and re-form your message's DOM. They will mash your classes and ids into carrot juice. In ways that are neither predictable nor transparent. You'll have to test, test, test, and test again. Just like cross-browser incompatibilities, you'll find large differences in layout within the same browser by using different webmail services to view your message. And just like cross-browser incompatibilities, you'll have to learn to live without pixel-perfect positioning.

So I guess one way to summarize would be: you can stop worrying like it's 1999, and start worrying like it's 2010. :)
posted by squid patrol at 9:18 AM on July 11, 2010 [78 favorites]

2nd pazazygeek. Personally, I just prefer text when it comes to email. I get a handful of HTML emails. They annoy me so I just skim and delete. I tend to find text quick and easy to read.
posted by hot_monster at 9:20 AM on July 11, 2010 [5 favorites]

How many people really use text-based email clients nowadays? 1 out of 1000? 1 out of 10000?
posted by smackfu at 9:33 AM on July 11, 2010

HTML emails with formatting you choose only look right when read in your email program with your settings. Under another program or even under the same program with different settings, it'll look awful or be unreadable. Even if most people are using email readers that CAN handle HTML, it's still not going to look the way you intended when it gets to them.
posted by galadriel at 9:39 AM on July 11, 2010

Some people pay by quantity - be kind to them.
posted by k8t at 9:41 AM on July 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Times may have changed but the landscape for sending HTML email hasn't as squid patrol describes: at best you can expect very basic unstyled HTML to render decently, but you absolutely cannot expect to do anything resembling web design in email and have it display consistently. There's just too much variance, and too many scars from the spam wars. It's not about email clients not being able to grok HTML, it's about the fact that you can't expect anything approaching the kind of consistency that you can on the web, so you might as well just stick to plain text. If you do try to do anything resembling fancy layout you have to stick to what seems really antiquated: table based layouts and only inline styles, and obviously no scripting at all.
posted by Rhomboid at 9:46 AM on July 11, 2010

smackfu - a biased sample is 3 out of 7 people in this thread... (pazazygeek, hot_monster, and myself)
posted by russm at 9:46 AM on July 11, 2010

How many people really use text-based email clients nowadays? 1 out of 1000? 1 out of 10000?

I, and everyone I support, use Thunderbird, but configured to render HTML mail as text, for all of the reasons cited above. I am not going to claim to know how unusual that is in practice, but it's certainly still circulating as an IT best practice recommendation, and I am nowhere near reconsidering it.
posted by gum at 9:49 AM on July 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I dont see a problem with HTML mail. Most mail is HTML. You may not notice it beause there's no embedded animated gif, but instead a bold word or two. I'd hate to lose bold, italics, and the occasional colored word because some people think its 1992.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:51 AM on July 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

oh, ok, 3 out of 10 on non-preview... and probably continuing to fall...

personally, my mail client of choice *can* do HTML, but I disable it for the reasons upthread - remote image loading, hideous unreadable typeface/colour choices, plus the fact that much of the email I send and receive presents better in a monospace typeface (code snippets, etc)...
posted by russm at 9:51 AM on July 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, I believe html email is sent with a text version of the message in the message, so no worries about text-only readers, which should be a pretty small minority to begin with.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:52 AM on July 11, 2010

I much prefer plain text as well. The HTML email I get adds needless size and, in some cases, makes the message harder to read.

You could poll your audience and see what they prefer or give them the option to get plain text or marked up emails.

If you absolutely want your fancied up emails to make it through unchanged then send them as PDF attachments.
posted by fenriq at 9:57 AM on July 11, 2010

Em dash on windows is alt+0151 on the keypad. (En dash is 0150.)

On os x it is alt+- or alt+shift+- or something like that.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:58 AM on July 11, 2010

I disable HTML just because I don't like it. I want to read text, and I don't want to look at pictures or whatever. If I want to see your blinking, scrolling GIF, I'll specifically turn it back on, but 99% of the time, I just don't want to. I don't really care about typography and layout and all that jazz, and my email is for my convenience, so that's how I roll.

It's also an easy way to scroll for spam. If your message is unreadable in plain text, it's usually spam, and I delete it. If I happen to miss out on an invitation to my best friend's second cousin's tupperware party because she made it into a picture, so much the better.

Another concern: many people with disabilities use readers that have a much easier time with plain text. Screen readers and the like do a semi-okay job with really good HTML, but it's much, much easier to just read text. If you're sending email to anyone who might be using a nonstandard reader for this (or any other) reason, plain text is best.

Basically, if you want to use HTML in your emails, go for it. It doesn't inconvenience me. But it may inconvenience you when I don't get your message.
posted by decathecting at 10:00 AM on July 11, 2010 [8 favorites]

My email client reads html email but I don't. I delete them.
posted by dobbs at 10:15 AM on July 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Size concerns are a valid reason for not using HTML in e-mail, even though people aren't expected to start taking them seriously any time soon.

Sending all your mail as HTML incurrs an overhead on the order of 100% for plain text, which might be trivial for a single user but translates to measurable quantities at the mail server level. This is a largely academic argument, as media traffic probably dwarfs plain text on the internet, but to me there's no good reason to be wasteful.
posted by Dr Dracator at 10:18 AM on July 11, 2010

Even so, I don't want inconvenience anyone receiving my e-mails (which is why I'm asking about this).

It's not an inconvenience, really. Most any modern text-based reader can strip HTML and make messages appear as they should (in the font _I_ choose, thank you very much).

However, as noted above, if you want to make sure your message has the best chance of being read, you ought to stick to plain text for a couple of reasons:

1) HTML conversion is somewhat problematic. Missing text, paragraphs that end up all on line, the classic "You are viewing in a non-html reader, please click here".
2) On a lot of services, HTML can increase your spam score. It might be the one thing that pushes you over the edge into the spam folder.
3) Email is for communication. HTML is almost always just noise.
posted by madajb at 10:22 AM on July 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think a lot of people are assuming that you're talking about a mailing list/bulk mail format, which was my first assumption too. Re-reading your question, you're talking about "day-to-day email," meaning the email that you send to friends, family, and colleagues, correct?

100% don't send HTML-styled email for this.

For one thing, you specifically mention that you like to "play with typography." This phrase makes me groan. It tells me that you're going to send something that's difficult to read at best.

Please don't "play with typography" when you email people - just say what you wanna say, and click Send. All of your styling only distracts from your words, and makes them harder to read.

Also, be aware that not everyone is going to be able to see the fonts you're using. Unless they have that font installed on their computer by default, their computer will translate it into something horrible. Like Times New Roman.

HTML in email is bullshit. Sometimes it's bullshit that companies feel obliged to perform. But it's still bullshit. It's like printing out a college essay on pink paper with unicorn watermarks, in a purple cursive/handwriting font, in a handmade folder decorated with ribbons and bows.

Email is all about words. No one cares about anything other than the words. I cannot stress this point enough.
posted by ErikaB at 11:26 AM on July 11, 2010 [18 favorites]

I still mainly use a mail client that doesn't do HTML.

There seems to be a good correlation between how much mail uses HTML, and ugliness and lack of useful content.
posted by curious_yellow at 11:26 AM on July 11, 2010

I too avoid html in email. FYI, all my employers so far (education, service) have filtered incoming and outgoing html email as a security policy and to promote homogeneity in outbound communication.
posted by knz at 11:31 AM on July 11, 2010

I still use Mutt as my email client and I really do not want to change to anything else. I appreciate: being able to use vi as an editor for my email; being able use it over ssh; and being able to fire it up, handle my email, and close it in the same amount of time it takes Thunderbird to start. All of that being said, the only time a html email bothers me is when the first few pages are nothing but CSS. A simple html page is easy enough to read that it isn't a problem.
posted by calumet43 at 11:38 AM on July 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a long-time Mailsmith user, I've been wondering about the same thing myself recently, but for now, I will stick with plain-text messages and a client that doesn't really handle HTML.
posted by Grinder at 12:07 PM on July 11, 2010

I can't think of a single desktop e-mail client that can't read HTML-formatted e-mail
Mailsmith can't, god bless it.
posted by bonaldi at 12:10 PM on July 11, 2010

Another text-mode data point here: I switch between, Thunderbird, and ... yes ... PINE daily, depending on circumstances. (I used to use Mutt a lot, but don't any more.)

PINE actually can read HTML mail; it renders a couple of kinds of emphasis and hyperlinks and that's about it. Conveniently, those are the only parts of the HTML markup that add any actual value to the mail for me.
I like the idea of being able to select my own typefaces (tastefully, of course) and use real em-dash characters when they're needed. (I'm only interested in text—I have no plans on HTML for layout.) Even so, I don't want inconvenience anyone receiving my e-mails (which is why I'm asking about this)
You can use real em-dashes as long as you're sending MIME mail, actually; it doesn't have to be HTML (although lots of people assume MIME = HTML, that's not true). Someone using a mailreader from 1990 would still be able to read that message, they'd just see =E2=80=94 instead of an em-dash. Ugly but not deadly.

Personally, I don't mind at all if people send me HTML mail, even though I'm kind of crusty and irritable about mail formats, as long as they're using basically semantic kinds of markup. What I hate is when people start specifying colors and fonts (especially font sizes), which look horribly out of place and mismatched compared to the rest of my Mail Experience. I think a lot of mail composing programs are at fault here: they assume you either want to send monospaced plaintext ASCII, or you want to send colored, flashing Comic Sans and animated GIFs. There is an aesthetically pleasing middle ground but the causal sender doesn't always have a way to get there.
posted by hattifattener at 12:42 PM on July 11, 2010

If you send plaintext email, people assume that the text is what's important. If you send HTML email, some people (me, at least) assume that the way it looks is what's important. I often use that as a quick filter to decide whether to read or delete.
posted by me & my monkey at 12:55 PM on July 11, 2010

I disable HTML formatting of e-mail on my end because HTML in e-mails is an attack vector. For this same reason I disable HTML e-mail on any machine I support, e.g. my parents' e-mail clients.

I understand that RFC 2822 and RFC 2045 allow for MIME e-mail. It's not as if HTML e-mail hasn't been standards compliant since 1996. I just don't want to allow an image or anything else from a foreign server to load when I view an e-mail.
posted by ob1quixote at 1:22 PM on July 11, 2010

For what it's worth, I'm a web designer, I love typography, I send HTML emails on behalf of clients for a living, and I turn HTML off in emails via Gmail. Nothing you have to say is so important that it's worth being subjected to Auntie Maude's favourite shade of pink and Comic Sans.

Looking at stats for clients, around 17% of recipients choose to receive email in plain text as opposed to HTML. For many of us, this is not a limitation of the client but a preference based on security, aesthetics, data filtering and as much as I hate to say it, filtering for the kinds of people who send personal mail in HTML format.

I hate to break it to you but your email is not a special snowflake.

posted by DarlingBri at 2:33 PM on July 11, 2010 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Keep in mind that if you're using these responses as a sort of survey, you're going to get a hugely disproportionate number of email nazis. I love the folks claiming that they delete HTML emails on sight. You're probably better off if those guys miss the party invitation, anyway. (I kid!)

I send HTML mail to CS and EE types all the time and have never heard a peep about it. And I've never had a mail client mangle the plaintext part, either, as far as I can tell.
posted by Garak at 2:40 PM on July 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

100% of the spam I receive is in html.
posted by Obscure Reference at 3:22 PM on July 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Another alpine user here. As long as there's a properly formatted plaintext version available for me to read, I don't much mind that you sent a plain HTML version. But yeah, I don't like random files from random webservers loading web beacons, images, or anything else when I read my mail. For security, aesthetics, and general UI reasons, yay commandline mail client.
posted by brainwane at 4:02 PM on July 11, 2010

Best answer: I still use Mutt as my email client and I really do not want to change to anything else.

It's many years since I last used Mutt regularly, but back when I did I had a setting in my .muttrc that took html formatted emails and dumped them through Lynx before displaying them as plain text. It actually worked surprisingly well. Admittedly back then html email was much rarer and not very fancy, so no idea how it would work now.

These days I use Mail on OS X, and it has a setting that allows you to compose any new messages as plain text only, and respond to html emails in html. I think that's a reasonable compromise.

There is also a hidden setting in Mail that makes it preferentially display the text portion if both text and html is included in the email. Unfortunately some broken clients send a blank text portion, so you can't see the message at all. And that pretty much highlights the issue with html email – you're dealing with a lot of clients, all of which interpret the contents of the email in their own special way, many of which are broken in some way or another. So yes, you can do html email, just don't expect it to always work the way you want.
posted by damonism at 5:23 PM on July 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

For anyone asking him- or herself, "Why is this guy so interested in HTML-formatted e-mail?", well, I guess I just get a kick out of typography—I like the idea of being able to select my own typefaces (tastefully, of course)

people like you are EXACTLY why i don't ever want to get an html email from a human—your idea of tasteful typeface might be great but let's be honest: most people are going to pick comic sans or something equally horrible, and then i would have to hate them worth the flames of a thousand suns, even more if they were people i get email from regularly. plain text keeps me from having to hate people.
posted by lia at 5:53 PM on July 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

You send me HTML, maybe it gets read, maybe it doesn't.
posted by orthogonality at 6:20 PM on July 11, 2010

Also, I believe html email is sent with a text version of the message in the message, so no worries about text-only readers, which should be a pretty small minority to begin with.

Yeah, I'm pretty sure this is true of all modern mail readers. The HTML goes into a bracketed header that plain text mailreaders ignore, just like the other meaningless cruft like X-Sent-On-Behalf-Of and anti spam headers and all that.

So send html all you want. With the added benefit of annoying all the delicate sensibilities of the anti html people.
posted by gjc at 6:50 PM on July 11, 2010

I prefer the courtesy of plain-text emails. I experience HTML mail as a signal that my correspondent doesn't care enough about my preferences to learn how to turn it off.
posted by flabdablet at 7:26 PM on July 11, 2010

What's interesting is that the pro-html email people think it's silly that the pro-text email people delete html mail on site. However, NO ONE does this for text-only emails. That should tell you something.

Further, I don't care what kind of font you like. It's my inbox and if it's not in the same font as every other email in there (you know, the font I chose on my computer), it's toast.
posted by dobbs at 8:32 PM on July 11, 2010

It used to be that your program wasn't finished until users could check their email with it, but certainly since 1998 it's been that your program isn't finished until users can also browse the web with it. I would be surprised to come across a program, web-page, or device that supported email without being able to deal with HTML emails somehow. However, I would not expect any but the most basic markup to really work though. HTML wasn't intended to be a high end typesetting tool and as I'm sure you know, even among web-browsers, rendering abilities are ... diverse.

At work I have OutLook configured to always send plain text email and to convert incoming emails to plain text as well. I try to do likewise with Yahoo and Gmail. Sometimes I even reply beneath the email I'm replying too! Why? Old fashioned and stubborn I guess. But also, thanks to unicode and a number of very nice monospace fonts out there, plain text can be expressive and even beautiful with minimal effort.

There are two problems with rendering plaintext in many modern email readers: 1) people and email clients fail to use a monospace font for rendering plain text. 2) Stupid whitespace interpretation. For example Outlook has this practice of collapsing "excess" newlines and yet it doesn't know how to deal with filled paragraphs (2007 seems to be somewhat better than 2003 but I haven't tested this). Neither are really so bad. Not nearly as bad as what will probably happen to a finely crafted webpage that has to be interpreted by these same email clients.
posted by wobh at 8:59 PM on July 11, 2010

I'm one of the last holdouts on Eudora and I have HTML rendering, images, and fonts turned off by default. Most HTML mail I receive is either commercial email (either solicited or spam) or email that someone's client sends as HTML because it's configured to "send HTML mail". The latter reads just fine in my cranky old client, and the former generally either has a link to a browser version or I didn't want to see it anyway.

So send me your email in Comic Sans if you absolutely must, but I'll be reading it in my own choice of font. If you want absolute control over your font, send a PDF, or print it and send a snail mail letter.
posted by immlass at 9:24 PM on July 11, 2010

I switched from mutt to in 2007, and I switched back to mutt a year later. HTML emails are formatted by lynx -dump. Incomprehensible HTML emails are ignored.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 12:16 AM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

It is not easy to have an actual conversation in an HTML-formatted email. HTML is better suited to broadcast (i.e. spam) or at least a venue where all the content markup happens centrally (i.e. MetaFilter).

I just switched *from* Thunderbird *to* a text-only email client recently and I'm pretty happy with it. If you break standards and etiquette by sending me an incomprehensible lump, all you are going to earn is my dislike.
posted by DU at 5:46 AM on July 12, 2010

HTML email is at least 3x the size of text. With thousands of emails, it adds up fast. Add in the pictures, the cute signature graphics, etc., and it wastes a lot of space. I always turn off html and read in text. Lots of mail says "Your email reader doesn't know how to read html and is broken" Nope. But thanks, I just saved 10 seconds and deleted your (sales) email.

HTML still ends up as junk on several newsgroups I'd like to read, but don't because they become a horrid mess in the digest version. Yes, the newsgroup admin should fix it, but it's not fixed, so again with the delete.

Hard enough to get people to do accessible web pages. But, email? hardly ever written for accessibility.

Like web pages, you may assume that I have SomeFont installed. If I don't, it just looks randomly bad. Or may render badly. Not everyone uses Outlook. Not everyone uses %your_mail_program.

Html may carry active content, and that content may be malicious.

Most important to me: I like content. Give me good content, in words, which are quite good at conveying information with accuracy, style, wit, pizazz, force, etc. and I will read it. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but most of the images I receive in email say "Lookie, lookie, look x 1000." I will delete that.
posted by theora55 at 7:38 AM on July 12, 2010

I gave up worrying about HTML email years ago.

On the other hand, I don't use Outlook. Outlook adds 300% more garbage in any email just for formatting. Every damn email contains multiple instances of "mso-normal" or whatever the hell else Outlook thinks is necessary for the formatting to exist.

Thunderbird adds minimal HTML - breaks at the end of lines, and maybe a line specifying background color, text color, and once in a while the font (sans-serif, serif, fixed-width). That's it.

The best answer I can think of is this: If you use Outlook, stick to plain text, because Outlook can't be fixed. If you use anything else, send a test HTML message to yourself and see how much cruft is added. Change your preferences to minimize the cruft and you ought to be fine. If you can't remove 90% of the markup, again, stick with plain text.

Avoid colored text, styled text (aside from italic and bold), sized text, and images like the plague. Let the recipient's mail client decide for itself what colors, sizes and fonts should be used. If you feel like specifying a font, stick with "sans-serif" or "serif", rather than a specific typeface. If an image is integral to the message itself, attach it, don't embed it.

Last but not least, if you are forwarding anything with HTML turned on, take the time to delete the 3,000 other email addresses in the body that were attached by the last 47 people who forwarded it. I might think the joke is funny but dislike having to scroll down three pages of old headers to see it, and really dislike you leaving my email address exposed there for easy harvesting by spambots and those people too oblivious to turn off the "automatically add every email address I see to my address book", thereby ensuring mountains of crap forwarded chain letters and hoax email from people I have never even met.

Remember: Nothing says "delete me without reading" like an email that looks like a chain letter typed up in Outlook by a middle-aged office worker on his/her lunch break.
posted by caution live frogs at 8:10 AM on July 12, 2010

Keep in mind that if you're using these responses as a sort of survey, you're going to get a hugely disproportionate number of email nazis.

It's good to take non-response bias into account.

I send HTML mail to CS and EE types all the time and have never heard a peep about it.

It's not good to ignore non-response bias. As an example: I'm perfectly willing to tell someone who specifically asks that I don't want to receive HTML email, but when someone just sends me HTML email without asking then I let it slide unless (and this has happened) the formatting mangles the content too badly for me to understand it.
posted by roystgnr at 8:20 AM on July 12, 2010

Another thing you might want to consider is how the email is going to look and read on mobile devices.

Font tags are probably ok, but tables, background colours, excessive formating etc might result in a difficult if not impossible to read email.
posted by captaincrouton at 8:43 AM on July 12, 2010

I dislike HTML e-mail almost as much as I detest "See the attached file for important information! [winmail.dat] " Ugh. Plaintext tells the recipient that the content is what is imporant, and that you care enough about them not to hit them with potentially unreadable or inconvenient formatting.
posted by xedrik at 11:22 AM on July 12, 2010

I've made dozens of HTML e-mail templates for clients and what I can tell you is this:
  • lots of this <>
  • spacer.gif is your friend for life
  • Stick to the most basic websafe fonts
  • Don't rely on font colors being there, or declared background colors, use a 1x1 colored GIF
  • If you're sending out a ton, better to buy an Amazon S3 or Akamai account to host your images

posted by wcfields at 1:30 PM on July 12, 2010

Without HTML E-mail, phishing would not exist. If you send HTML E-mail, you are in the same category as those carrying out phishing scams. This is hardly a reasonable price to pay for em dashes.

Also: You top-post, right?
posted by joeclark at 1:49 PM on July 12, 2010

I'll read your HTML-formatted message, but I'll roll my eyes, wish you would stick with plain text, and privately think slightly less of you.

Using HTML for links embeded in your text MetaFilter style, however, can be useful and more elegant than a plain text URL before or after the paragraph that mentions the link, especially if there are several of them, so I have no problem with that.
posted by straight at 1:53 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I send HTML-formatted mail. While that may put me in the same category as those carrying out phishing scams, so does using a keyboard or breathing oxygen.

It's not just the em dashes. It's working links and the use of italics, bold, color, and fonts to better express ideas. I'll admit that you can do without those things if you needed to. We could also read everything in all-caps if we had to. The things you get from HTML are just nice to have. But we can afford nice things.
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 10:30 AM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I used to be in the "plaintext 4 lyfe" camp, but I've gone over to the dark side and I mostly send HTML mail these days (from Thunderbird or gmail, largely). The reasons?
  • Most people I email regularly use gmail, hotmail, Thunderbird, Outlook, or another client which can do basic HTML rendering.
  • I like being able to use inline hyperlinks instead of having to work out a footnoting scheme in plain text, or else awkwardly break my paragraphs up with extremely long lines.
  • I find it incredibly annoying following a plain-text thread when one of the user's mail user agents doesn't support format=flowed and the result is jagged text much like this. In fact, as somebody who puts a little care into how a paragraph looks, purely textually, I've come to the conclusion that plain-text isn't worth fighting with any longer.
  • As others have mentioned, modern mail clients send both HTML and plain-text versions, so even if I send the email through a wormhole to 1998 the recipient will be very likely to be able to read it.
  • Also I put everything in pink, flashing Comic Sans, because it just feels right.
One exception to this is that I still send plain-text messages to mailing lists I'm on, and I'd venture that for mailing lists, at least of the techie variety, the nettiquette rule prefering plain-text email is still in effect.
posted by whir at 1:40 AM on July 14, 2010

HTML Emails are a pain in the butt to design. Consistency is thrown out the window completely. You have to make sure your readers whitelist your address, which will pose problems as x% of your users can't do Y task guaranteed. Spammers are the ones who abuse HTML emails so you are generally grouped amongst them and have to fight your way out, which is simply more work. So from a design perspective, I believe they are still awful, and that a blog does a much better job at communicating regularly and consistently.

But design like this does not seem to be your main objective - you say you want to select your own typefaces. You will be limited to OS default fonts, which Gmail shows me there is 10 or so, one being the lovely Comic Sans. If you still feel you can be creative with these limited fonts, and colors and other styling that most basic HTML email editors have, then I really don't see too many reasons why not to take advantage of them. In terms of compatibility, most email programs can handle simple HTML like this with no problem (rather, I have never encountered any problem with sending hyperlins and such things in my years of using email), and stripping out any HTML will result in basically the same message being sent through just without the flair. That said, I still put URLs in my emails by announcing them as I am doing for the Google link now: but this is more to make the flow of things clear when I put many URLs in one email. At the same time it does degrade nicely for those who choose or are forced to use text-only emails.
posted by Meagan at 8:50 AM on July 15, 2010

As others have mentioned, modern mail clients send both HTML and plain-text versions, so even if I send the email through a wormhole to 1998 the recipient will be very likely to be able to read it.

This is the correct way to do it. I seriously dislike HTML formatted email, but it is in no way not standard compliant. RFC 2822, the standard for Internet Email 1 explicitly states:
This standard specifies that messages are made up of characters in the US-ASCII range of 1 through 127. There are other documents, specifically the MIME document series [RFC2045, RFC2046, RFC2047, RFC2048, RFC2049], that extend this standard to allow for values outside of that range.
In Other Words: HTML is allowed, as long as you format the body of the SMTP message in conformance with the MIME standards or other standards that extend RFC2822.

However, an old metarule of the Internet is "Be strict in what you send, generous in what you accept." I would accept an HTML only email message -- it is impolite, perhaps, but that's not a reason to reject. I would prefer that you send it "nicely" -- that is, with a part that's text/plain or message/RFC8222 and a part that's text/HTML.

1) Anyone quoting RFC 822 at you may be ignored -- note in the header for RFC 2822 it says "Obsoletes: 822." If they insist, mock them.

2) Want to test MIME compliance of your mailreader? This is the one that's most often shanked -- message/RFC822 is the *entire* message, not the body. Really, this is a better way, because I can put a filter in front to strip out MIME complete and present a pure RFC2822 formatted message to an MTA with it if I have something that can't do MIME. Alas, the world uses text/plain, which means I'd have to regenerate a SMTP messages from the MIME mail headers and the text/plain body.
posted by eriko at 9:39 AM on July 19, 2010

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