Is plain-text-only email realistic?
September 19, 2020 5:08 PM   Subscribe

HTML email is increasingly loathsome due to phishing, spam, tracking, and bandwidth usage. Wouldn’t it be nice to run my own email server and flatly reject all that? Is that feasible? Can you still get (for example) usage alerts from the utility company, flight updates, grocery coupons, and receipts? Can you keep the good parts of email but get rid of the bad?
posted by Monochrome to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
If you're willing to throw a little money at the problem, check out Hey.
posted by pyro979 at 5:23 PM on September 19 [3 favorites]

Can you keep the good parts of email but get rid of the bad?

Yeah, you just use an e-mail client that doesn't load anything by default unless you tell it to. If you have a server flat out reject stuff, you'd miss out on a bunch of things. By manually loading only content you want that they've chosen to send as HTML, you can still get things like coupons while dodging most of the tracking stuff.
posted by Candleman at 5:24 PM on September 19 [7 favorites]

Read your e-mail using a text-only client like Alpine running in a terminal window. They even have a Windows version.
posted by kindall at 5:55 PM on September 19 [4 favorites]

Seconding Candleman. I don't think plain-text-only is realistic, there will always be some cases where you need images (e.g. tickets to events), but "show me plain text only until I specifically enable other stuff for this message" is very doable. I use Mozilla Thunderbird and it offers this.
posted by equalpants at 5:58 PM on September 19 [7 favorites]

Google's gmail reader does away with almost all the loathsome stuff, though of course you may wish to avoid Google. My gmail shows me just the text unless I click an option to load all the baggage for a particular email; that's very rarely needed. And a spam message gets through perhaps one time per week. Gmail reader works with other email providers, not just gmail itself.
(I signed up for and tried Hey as suggested by pyro979 but didn't find it a big enough improvement over gmail)
posted by anadem at 6:29 PM on September 19 [2 favorites]

Seconding Thunderbird, I've been using it since at least 2004. I did email Hey (after I got my invite and signed-up for a trial) with some specific questions. They were very polite about features I was interested in but no, they didn't provide them. And the price was also more than I was willing to spend. But your judgment may differ.
posted by forthright at 6:38 PM on September 19

I use Thunderbird with a few settings to avoid loading images, etc. I sometimes set it to present e-mail as plain text.

If you decide to set up your own server, it's probably an interesting project to try. I bet you could easily set up a mail handler to run your mail through a Perl script using the HTML Parser module/library to not just strip out the HTML, but to handle it intelligently (e.g., if an image was a link, you could substitute some text for the image instead of just eliminating it; you could maybe even set up a parser to figure out if a script was loading more text, safely load that text, and safely parse it.)

I've daydreamed about setting up a web server to do something similar - removing parts of complex web pages that were just distracting, maybe even coming up with an alternative way to achieve revenue for stuff so that removing ads wouldn't be a problem. So, I hope you do try this!
posted by amtho at 7:15 PM on September 19 [1 favorite]

Professional Email Marketing Type Person here. Just so you know, even if you disable images, or just load the plain text version—that every HTML email should have, by the way—you're still going to be tracked if you click a link.
posted by SansPoint at 7:55 PM on September 19 [4 favorites]

I run my own mail server on my own domain.
I read all my mail in plain text by preference.

Completely rejecting html mail at the server level is not realistic.
Far too many companies send email that has a text part that is completely useless, consisting of (hopefully) a link to an web page version of the email but more often than not "Your email client does not support HTML".
Sometimes an email has a text part but all of the information is contained in an embedded graphic.

Personal communication is similar, especially email to/from a group where "All the stuff you need to know is in red" is not uncommon.

I recommend instead using an email client that displays the plain-text portion while leaving you the option to load basic html as needed.
Be aware that quite a few clients that claim to do this are actually just not rendering the HTML but are still loading it. They merely present the HTML without formatting.

The concern raised by SansPoint is valid, but if you are using a true plain-text render, when you cut and paste a link to a browser, you can remove the tracking information.
Sometimes this is not possible because they've used an obfuscated URL ( or somesuch) in which case at least you can make an informed decision if you want to be tracked.

I've been doing some version of this since HTML email was invented. I would say it is about once a week that I need to load the HTML version to get information that is not viewable in the plain-text and about once a month that I need to enable images.
posted by madajb at 8:35 PM on September 19 [4 favorites]

Can you keep the good parts of email but get rid of the bad?

Gmail used to be that. Now Fastmail is.

I've been a network administrator and I've run mail servers and I can assure you that keeping them going is a pain in the arse that I'm perfectly content to toss Fastmail a pittance to take on for me instead. Their web client is good enough that I now have no motivation left to use Thunderbird except to keep local backups of my mail folders over IMAP.

By default, the Fastmail web client doesn't do anything with an HTML email that would let the sender know you've opened it. If you want it to load images or other content that isn't shipped with the mail body, you have to click a per-mail UI element to make that happen. And because you are tossing them a pittance, they don't need to sell you to advertisers to keep themselves in business and they actually provide responsive customer service.

Not affiliated with the company, merely a happy customer since 2014.
posted by flabdablet at 12:25 AM on September 20 [2 favorites]

Use a good email client.

Sylpheed renders all HTML email as plaintext, with tracking URLs fully displayed so you know what you'd be clicking, and never opens any network connections other than sending or fetching the email itself. You'll need to shoot yourself in the foot, the client won't do that for you.
posted by Bangaioh at 2:59 AM on September 20

Just adding that I use Outlook and both send and view email as plain text; just as the other clients above seem to be configured, any HTML email I receive is presented in plain text with an option to view as HTML...and unless the sender is on my trusted list, even viewing in HTML doesn't load images by default. Works pretty well, overall.
posted by maxwelton at 10:09 PM on September 20

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