Getting Your Message Over…

As part of my job I’m on a mailing list for computer officers from all over the University. By and large this isn’t a hugely busy mailing list. I would guess the biggest use is for people pimping hardware that they no longer need (its incredible how quickly a range of old servers gets snapped up!).

But sometimes (two or three times a year) a subject flares up and the list gets very busy. And today one of those subjects arrived.

One member of the list sent a teaser advert about an announcement which will be made in a months time. The teaser was in the form of a picture file attached to an otherwise blank email.

And the fact that the teaser was an image file attached to an email is what caused all the traffic.

It started off with one user complaining that, because they are using a venerable old email client (Mutt), and the original author neglected to add any ‘alt’ text to their image the user was forced to open the image file in a suitable image viewer, only to discover that the image was almost entirely information free.

The user then received several emails telling him that he could have used another email client and that it would have been fine. However, one of the things that I really enjoy about the University is that it is entirely agnostic about such things, and people are free to use whatever mail client they choose. This is the case even when the choice is both difficult to maintain and causes the user to be unable to upgrade their operating system (yes, I’m looking at you Eudora!). The Computing Service maintains Pine/Alpine available running on the mail servers and accessed via SSH.

I feel a lot of sympathy for the original poster (I’ll call him Mutt). When I first started using email ‘in anger’ I used Pine. It had a steep learning curve, but once you were used to it things got ridiculously easy, muscle memory took over the process of reading, writing and filing emails. But attachments were a problem, and you ended up saving them to some file space and then opening them as required from the file space. Because of this, I sometimes use the Pine system that is available, for that little sting of nostalgia.

I once wrote a similar email to Mutt’s to a mailing list that I was on. ┬áBack then my net connection was ‘dial up’ and I had a bee in my bonnet about the use of html in emails. It was, I contended, a simple matter of signal to noise. Every email is intended to carry an aliquot of information, and ideally the amount of data that had to be uploaded, transmitted and downloaded is proportional to the volume of information in the email. My beef with html email was that most users wrote html emails without even noticing, so never took ‘advantage’ of the available text effects. However, irrespective of whether effects were used or not, the email would then be sent, more often than not as the ‘html’-ised version of the text, followed by the plain version immediately afterwards. The signal to noise ratio in this case was at least half of what it could have been (assuming that there were no html tags used) with the ratio falling further, given the bloat that the html more than likely contained.

So Mutt was making a valid point (the point was even more valid in his case, the data downloaded wasn’t justified by the information to be conveyed, and he needed to go through a couple of hoops to discover that fact). However, the irony in the aftermath is that there then followed a short flurry of emails where many opinions were expressed regarding the use of different email clients and value of data, and so the issue, such as it was, was compounded furiously by the responses received.

My favourite response by far though was the fellow computer officer who, understanding the need to convey the little information involved, but wanting to do so in a text friendly manner generated an ASCII art version of the original teaser poster and sent that to the list. Well played sir!