Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Eternal September? I wish! (And some thoughts on email)

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One of the most unfortunate trends of the Internet is that erstwhile standard procedures, behaviors, whatnot are forced out by inferior alternatives, as an extension of the Eternal September. Indeed, the point where even the Eternal September can be viewed with some nostalgia has long been reached:

The name arose through a combination of how, every September, the Internet would see a sudden burst of college freshmen, who still needed to learn how to handle themselves and who were an annoyance to older users until they had done so; and how the popularization of the Internet outside of college caused this inflow of unversed users to take place over the entire year. Even so, in the early days, the new users tended to be of over-average intelligence, tech affinity, and/or willingness to adapt—and many could still continuously be made to leave their newbie status behind. The problem with the Eternal September was its Hydra character: Cut of one head and it grew two new.

Today’s situation is far, far worse: There is no filtering* of who uses the Internet, be it with regard to intelligence, technical understanding, willingness to learn from more senior users, …; and, by now, the vast majority of all users are stuck in a constant newbie state. Indeed, we have long reached a point where those who have been on the Internet since before the problems became overwhelming** are viewed as weirdos for doing things the right way***. Worse: Websites are usually made for the “lowest common denominator”, with regard to content, language****, and interface, making them far less interesting than they could be to the old guard. This is paralleled in a number of negative phenomena on the Internet (and, unfortunately, IT in general): Consider e.g. how much less profitable it would be to spam a collective of STEM students than a random selection of the overall population, or how much less successful an Internet-based virus among the tech savvy.

*A formal filter, a legal restriction, an equivalent of a driver’s license, or similar, was not in place before the Eternal September either. However, Internet access outside of higher education was reasonably rare, and even within higher education it was far more common in STEM areas than in e.g. the social sciences. Correspondingly, there was an implicit filter that made it far more likely for e.g. a math major to have Internet access than for e.g. a high-school drop-out.

**The linked-to Wikipedia page puts 1993 as the start date in the U.S., but other countries like trailed somewhat. I started college in 1994 and the situation was reasonable for a few years more, before the Internet boom really started—after which is has been downhill all the way.

***Note that while there is some arbitrariness to all rules and there is usually more than one legitimate way to handle things, there is at least one important difference between the “old ways” and the “new ways” (even aside from the benefit of continuity and consistency, which would have been present with the old rules): The old ways were thought-out by highly intelligent people and/or developed by trial-and-error to a point where they worked quite well—the new are a mixture of complete arbitrariness; ideas by less intelligent and less experienced users, or even managers of some software company; attempts to apply unsuitable “real-world” concepts to the online world; … To this must be added the technical side: Someone who understands it, all other factors equal, is objectively better off that someone who does not—and less of a burden to others.

****Even Wikipedia, once an exemplary source of good writing, has gone downhill considerably, with regard to both grammar and style. (Notably, the “encyclopedic writing” aspect is increasingly disappearing in favor of a more journalistic or magazine style. I have long had plans for a more detailed post on Wikipedia, including topics like an infestation with unencyclopedic propaganda, but have yet to get around to it.)

A particularly depressing aspect, but great illustration of the more general problems, is the (ab-)use of email by many businesses, government institutions, and similar, who simply do not understand the medium and how to use it properly. No, I am not talking about spam here (although spam is a gross violation)—I am talking about everyday use.

Consider e.g.:

  1. That many businesses and virtually all (German) government institutions fail to quote the original text when replying and replace the subject line with something to the effect of “Your message from [date]”.

    The former makes it harder to process the message, in particular when a re-reply is needed, often forcing the user to open several other messages to check for past contents; the latter makes it much harder to keep messages together that belong together*, to find the right reply to an email, identify why a reply was sent**, etc. To boot, these problems likely contribute to poor customer service through creating similar issues on the other end, e.g. through a member of customer support not having all the information present without looking through old emails or some ticket system: Even if the information is there, access will be slower, more resources will be wasted, and there is a major risk that important information will still be missed.

    *Not only manually, but also through giving automatic “threading” mechanisms in email clients an unexpected obstacle.

    **When the original text is not included, this becomes even harder. In a worst-case scenario, when several emails were sent to the same counter-part on the same day (rare but happens), it might not even be possible to make the correct match—or only through comparing various IDs in the message headers. The latter is not only much more effort than just looking at subject lines, it also requires that all involved software components have treated them correctly, that the counter-part has used them correctly, and that the user knows that they exist…

    The explanation for this absolutely amateurish and destructive behavior is almost certainly that they have never bothered to learn how to handle email, and just unreflectingly apply methods that they used with “snail mail”* in the past. This is the more absurd since going in the other direction, and altering some snail mail procedures in light of experiences with email, would be more beneficial.

    *This phrase gives another example of how the world can change: Twenty years ago, I could use the phrase and simply assume that the vast majority of all readers would either know that I meant “physical mail sent by the post”—or be willing both to find out the meaning on their own and to learn something new. Today, while typing the phrase, I am suddenly unsure whether it will be understood—and I know that very many modern Internet users will not be willing to learn. I might be willing to give the disappearance of the phrase a pass: We can neither expect every phrase ever popular to continue to be so in the long term, nor the phrases of any group to be known in all other groups. However, the attitude towards learning and own effort is a different matter entirely.

  2. When messages are quoted, established rules are usually ignored entirely, especially with regard to putting the quote ahead of the answer and to intermingle quote and reply, which makes an enormous difference in the ease of processing the reply. Some tools, notably MS Outlook, more-or-less force a rule violation on the users… When quote and reply are intermingled it is usually not done in the established manner, with separating new lines and use resp. non-use of a “> ” prefix; instead, the new text is simply written straight into the old and separated only by a highly problematic* use of a different color.

    *Among the problems: The colors are not standardized. The result becomes confusing as to who wrote what in what order after just a few back-and-forths, to the point of making a lengthier email discussion almost impossible (whereas it was one of the main uses of email in the days of yore). It forces the use of HTML emails (cf. below). There is no guarantee that the colors will be visible after printing or a copy-and-paste action to another tool (notably a stand-alone editor). Not all email clients will be able to render the colors correctly (and they are not at fault, seeing that HTML is not a part of the email specifications). Generally, color should not be used to make a semantic differentiation—only to highlight it. (For instance, in the example below, an email client could automatically detect the various “>” levels and apply colors appropriately; however, the “>” signs must remain as the actual carriers of meaning.)

    To give a (simplistic and fictional) example of correct quoting:

    >>> Have you seen the latest “Star Wars” movie?
    >> No.
    > Why not?
    The one before that was too disappointing.

  3. Ubiquitous use of “no-reply” addresses: Anyone who sends an email has a positive duty to ensure that the recipient can reply to this email. This includes event-generated automatic messages (e.g. to the effect of “we have received your email” or “your package has just been sent”) and news letters. Either make sure that there is someone human able to read the replies or do not send the email at all.* This is not only an ethical duty towards the recipient, it is also a near must for a responsible sender, who will be interested in e.g. tracking resulting failures.

    *The exact role of this human (or group of humans) will depend on the circumstances; often it will be someone in customer service or a technical administrator.

  4. Abuse of email as just a cost-saver relative snail mail: There is nothing wrong with sending relevant attachments in addition to an email text, and in some cases, e.g. when sending an invoice*, even a more-or-less contentless email and an attachment can be OK (provided that the recipient has consented). However, some take this to an absurd extreme, notably the outrageously incompetent German insurance company HUK, and write a PDF letter containing nothing that could not be put in an email, attach the resulting file to the email, and use a boiler-plate email text amounting to “please open the attachment to read our message”. This, obviously, is extremely reader hostile, seeing that the reader now has to go through several additional steps just to get at the main message** and it ruins the normal reply and quote mechanisms of email entirely. To boot, it blows up the size of the message to many times what it should be*** and increases the risk of some type of malware infection.

    *This especially if the contents of the invoice are to some degree duplicated in the email proper, including total amount, time period, and due date (but more data is better). Writing an invoice entirely as a plain-text email is possible, and then the attachment would be unnecessary; however, there can be legitimate reasons to prefer e.g. PDF, including a reduced risk of manipulation, a more convincing and consistent visual appearance if a hard-copy has to be presented to the IRS, and an easier differentiation between the invoice proper and an accompanying message. (There might or might not be additional legal restrictions in some jurisdictions.)

    **Note that it is not just a matter of one extra click to open that one attachment that one time. Consider e.g. a scenario of skimming through a dozen emails from the same sender, from two years back, in order to find those dealing with a specific issue, and then to extract the relevant information to clarify some new development: If we compare a set of regular emails and a set of emails-used-to-carry-PDFs, the time and effort needed can be several orders larger for the latter. Or consider how the ability to use a search mechanism in the email client is reduced through this abuse of email.

    ***This is, admittedly, less of an issue today than in the past (but HUK has been doing this for a very long time…). Still there are situations where this could be a problem, e.g. when a mailbox has an outdated size limit. It is also a performance issue with regard to other email users: The slow-down and increase in resource use for any individual email will be relatively small; however, in the sum, the difference could be massive. What if every message was blown-up by a factor of 10, 100, 1000, …? What would the effects on the overall performance be and what amount of band-width and processing power (especially if spam or virus filters are applied) would be needed? For instance, the two emails at the top of my current mailbox are, respectively, an outgoing message from me at 1522 Byte and the reply to said message at 190 Kilo(!)byte—roughly 125 times as much. The lion’s part of the difference? A two-page PDF file…

  5. Use of HTML as an email format: Such use should, on the outside, be limited to recipients known both to handle the emails in a compatible manner and to be consenting: HTML is not supported by all email clients, and not in the same manner by all that do. It poses an additional security and privacy risk to the recipient. It bloats the message to several-to-many times the size it should be. It makes offline storage of the email more complicated. It makes it harder to use standard reply and quoting mechanisms. The risk of distortion on the way to the recipient is larger. … Notably, it also, very often, makes the email harder to read, through poor design.

    To boot, the reason for the use is usually very dubious to begin with, including the wish to include non-informative images (e.g. a company logo), to try to unethically track the recipients behavior (e.g. through including external images and seeing what images is retrieved when), or to make the message more aesthetic*. A particular distasteful abuse is some newsletters that try emulate the chaotic design of a commercial flyer or catalog, which often deliberately try to confuse the readers—either the newsletter senders are incompetent or they try to achieve something incompatible with the purpose of a newsletter**.

    *This is simply not the job of the sender: The sender should send his contents in a neutral form and the rendering should be done according to the will of the recipient and/or his email client—not the sender. Efforts to change this usually do more harm than good.

    **Most likely, but not necessarily, to use it as advertising. I note that while newsletters are often unwelcome and while the usual automatic addition of any and all customers to the list of recipients is despicable, the abuse of a newsletter for advertising is inexcusable: Many will consent to being or deliberately register as recipients because they are interested in news about or from the sender; and it is a gross violation of the trust placed in the sender to instead send them advertising.

    There are legitimate cases where a plain-text email is not enough to fulfill a certain use-case; however, they are rare and usually restricted to company-internal emails. For instance, one of the rare cases when I use HTML emails is when I want to send the tabular result of a database query to a colleague without having to use e.g. an Excel attachment—and even this is a border-line spurious use: In the days of yore, with some reservations for the exact contents, this could have been done equally well in plain-text. Today it cannot, because almost all email readers use a proportional font and because some email clients take inexcusable liberties with the contents*.

    *For instance, Outlook per default removes “unnecessary” line-breaks—and does so making assumptions that severely restrict the ability to format a plain-text document so that it actually is readable for the recipient.

    Of course, even assuming a legitimate use-case, it can be disputed whether specifically HTML is a good idea: Most likely, the use arose out of convenience or the misguided belief that HTML was a generic Internet format (rather than originating as a special purpose language for the Web). It would have been better to extend email with greater formatting capabilities in an ordered, centralized, and special-purpose* manner, as has been done with so many other Internet related technologies (cf. a great number of RFCs).

    *Which is not automatically to say that something should be developed from scratch or without regard for other areas—merely that it should be made to suit the intended purpose well and only the intended purpose. Some member (or variation of a member) of the ROFF-family might have been suitable, seeing that they are much closer to plain-text to begin with.

  6. A particularly idiotic mistreatment of emails is exemplified by Daimler and in recent discussion for another large auto-maker (which one, I do not recall):

    If an email is sent to an employee at the wrong time, e.g. during vacation, the email is simply deleted…

    The motivation given is absurd and shows a complete lack of understanding of the medium: This way, the private time of the employees would be protected. To make matters worse, the “threat” comes not from the outside but from a (real or imagined) pressure from within the company to always be available. In effect, Daimler has created a problem, and now tries to solve this problem through pushing the responsibility and consequences onto innocent third parties.

    Email is by its nature an asynchronous means of communication; and one of its greatest advantage is that the sender knows that he can send a message now, even outside of office hours or during vacation periods, and have it handled on the other end later. He does not have to consider issues like whether the recipient (if a business) is open or (if a person) is at home with his computer on. Moreover, the “later” is, with some reservations for common courtesy and stated dead-lines, determined by the recipient: He can chose to handle the email in the middle of his vacation—or he can chose to wait until he is back in the office. Whichever choice he makes, it is his choice; and if he chooses the former against his own best interests, well, then he only has himself to blame.

    By this utterly ridiculous rule, one of the greatest advantages of email is destroyed. To boot, it does this by putting an unfair burden on the sender, who is now not only required to re-send at a later and less convenient time—but who can see a number of additional disadvantages. Assume e.g. that the sender is about to head for his vacation, sends an important and urgent email, goes of the grid for two weeks, and comes back to see that his email has not even been read. Or take someone who writes a lengthy email and loses* any own copy after sending—should he now be required to re-type the entire thing, because of a grossly negligent policy of the recipient’s? Or what happens when employees in very different time zones or with very different vacation habits try to communicate with each other? Should the one work during his normal off-hours or vacation so that the other can receive the email during his time in the office? What happens if the notification** of “please send again” from company A is it self deleted by company B?

    *Disk crashes and accidental deletes happen; I have worked with email clients that do not automatically save sent emails; and, in the spirit of this post, not all users actually know how to retrieve sent emails that are saved…

    **Daimler apparently at least has the decency to send such notifications. I would not count on all copy-cats to follow suit.

    Want to keep your employees from reading company emails in their spare time? Do not give them email access from home or do cut it off during those times when no access is wanted! The way chosen by Daimler turns the reasonable way of handling things on its head—to the gross detriment of others. (This even assuming that the intended goal is legitimate: These are adults. We could let them chose for themselves…)

Written by michaeleriksson

January 5, 2018 at 12:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

4 Responses

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  1. […] This email committed many of the sins I discuss in a previous post, including altering the subject line and not including the original message—and added one […]

  2. […] **A similar drift explains many of the things that have changed for the worse on the Internet, in the Open-Source community, and similar, over time. Indeed, the people who dominated the Internet when I first encountered it (1994) form a very small minority by now. Also see a post expanding on these thoughts. […]

  3. […] email was informative, to the point, and did not even abuse HTML for the email text. (Portions of [1] contain some discussion of why HTML has no place in […]

  4. […] strong case can be made that various Internet standards created before the Eternal September, the commercialization of the Internet, the (once) dominance of Internet Explorer, … where […]


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