Using Internet mail
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I wrote this document in about 1998, and the last significant update was in October 2000. At the time, Email was used primarily by technical people, and non-technical people were struggling to come to terms with it. This document was designed to help.

Since then, Email has become mainstream. Everybody uses it, and most people ignore the recommendations in this document. So I suppose it's out of date. That doesn't make it wrong; indeed, I believe that the current Email culture borders on computer illiteracy. It severely limits its usefulness. But it's also clear that crying in the wilderness won't help. So I'm not updating this document any further. Some of the references may thus be a little antiquated.

Electronic mail, or Email, is one of the most important Internet services. Until the advent of the World-Wide Web, it was also the most popular. It's also the most personal mainstream service: your Email reflects your own personality, so it's important to convey the correct impression in your electronic mail.

For many people, electronic mail is still a novel experience. Many people sign up for an email account, get some mail program like Eudora or one of the Microsoft mail programs, play around for a while, and then just about forget it, leaving mail to collect unanswered. Even big companies are offenders here.

In those cases where such people do send or answer mail, the quality of the message is frequently poor. They often contain misspellings, irrelevant quotes, or poor layout (“formatting”).

Don't underestimate the effect of such a mail message. Your mail message is all that many people see of you, and if it's poorly formatted, one line per paragraph, badly spelt, or full of errors, it will give people a poor impression of you. Email use is just now becoming mainstream, but many hackers have been using it for 20 years or more.

In the impersonal world of the Internet, your mail messages are the most tangible thing about you. Send out a well thought out, clear and legible message, and you will leave a good impression. Send out a badly formulated, badly formatted and badly spelt message, and you will leave a bad impression.

So what's good formatting and what's bad formatting? That's partially a matter of opinion (and self-expression), of course, but there are a number of Internet Standards which define what a message should look like. Unfortunately, Microsoft is trying to impose its own “standard” on the world. I can't give a link to it, because they haven't published their “standard”.

Problems in mail fall into a number of categories. Select the link for more details of each category:

For further recommendations, see RFC 1855.

In this document, I used text-mode UNIX mail readers to illustrate the problems. You may not find them as pretty as Microsoft mailers, and all the whiz-bang icons are missing. This is my personal choice: I use mail readers to read and send mail, and not for web browsing or writing documents. This discussion doesn't relate only to text-mode mailers, though--take a look at the page about UNIX graphic mode mailers if you prefer them.

Which mailer should you use?

Your choice of MUA (“mailer”) is personal--maybe. You can only choose from what's available. If you use UNIX or a compatible operating system, there are dozens of mailers available, some of them good. I personally prefer mutt.

If you use Microsoft, you'll also find several mailers, but most of them are bad, at least from the point of view of what the recipient sees. My personal hate list (in order of decreasing capability to annoy) is:

Lotus Notes
Microsoft “Outlook” Express
Microsoft “Outlook”

Netscape Communicator is better, but not much. None of these mailers is capable of both producing correct formats and not mutilating quoted text. “Outlook” Express apparently insists on displaying in a proportionally spaced font, so you can't even decide where to insert a manual line break. Most of them discard headers, which may contain important information--it's rather like receiving conventional (“snail mail”) letters without the envelope.

About the only choices I've seen which even come close to being usable under Microsoft are:

Pegasus Mail is a more conventional Microsoft-centric MUA, but it seems often to do the right thing with line wrap. You may find one of these worth trying. At least they're free, so if you don't like them you haven't wasted any money.

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