Email Bag, by Susan Ostlund

The Religion of Plain Text E-mail

Have you ever been asked to send Plain Text e-mail only and not HTML e-mail? What is this all about? Is HTML e-mail evil?

My first exposure to this topic came as a request from a friend who asked me to not send HTML e-mail. Frankly, this left me a bit offended and not quite understanding why HTML e-mail should be a problem. To be honest, I didn't even know I was sending HTML e-mail. Wasn't a simple text e-mail without additional formatting and no attachments just Plain Text? No..It was explained to me that that there was an option in the e-mail program that determined whether the e-mail would be sent as Plain Text or in HTML format (e-mail programs are frequently set to send in HTML format by default). In this particular circumstance, my HTML formatted e-mail was being received as an HTML attachment instead of the e-mail text. In order to view my e-mail, it was necessary to open the attachment in another program (in this case Internet Explorer). The recipient had to take additional steps in order to read my e-mail. I changed a setting in my e-mail program to send my friend Plain Text and the issue went away. My e-mails were now being received normally.

Further investigation (web searches, quizzing colleagues, reading lively HAL-PC newsgroup discussions) revealed that there are many amongst us who have very strong opinions on the subject of Plain Text e-mail Vs. HTML e-mail. "It's almost like a religion!" proclaimed one HAL-PC member. Those belonging to the Plain Text e-mail Religious Camp cite some of the following.

Problems with HTML E-mail: Compatibility Issues:

  • Not all e-mail Programs are fully compatible with one another.
  • Some e-mail programs cannot decipher HTML and either just display the e-mail as HTML code or worse yet, "hieroglyphics". Consequently, you may be sending an HTML e-mail to someone that either cannot read or requires them to take additional steps in order to read it.

Security Issues:

  • HTML e-mail can spread Viruses and Worms (i.e. KLEZ and I Love You Virus)
  • HTML e-mail can Trigger Dialups to the Internet (i.e. Web Bugs)

Other Issues:

  • Problems for Newsgroups (Many newsreader programs cannot interpret HTML and will just display the HTML format code as text)
  • HTML Takes Longer to Download than Plain Text e-mail due to larger file size.

File size experiment - I copied and pasted a 2-page Notepad text file into an Outlook Express message with the Plain Text option selected. The e-mail message was 39KB in size. Next, I copied and pasted the same text file into a Word document. We are now working with formatted text. The text from the Word document was copied into another Outlook Express message, this time with the Rich Text (HTML) option selected. The e-mail message was 133KB, over 3x larger than the plain text message!!

See for a more detailed explanation of the above issues, examples, and instructions on how to turn off HTML in different e-mail programs.

The intent of this article is not to prove that there is an evil conspiracy behind HTML e-mail or even to discourage all use of HTML e-mail. In my opinion, provided one practices safe computing (i.e. updated antiviral protection), it is a personal preference if individuals mutually wish to correspond in HTML e-mail using stationery, special formatting, animated gifs, etc.

My intent is to explain that there are issues and risks involved in using HTML e-mail. This is why using Plain Text e-mail ONLY is for some like a religion. Instead of being offended when asked to use Plain Text e-mail, please view the request as a matter of Netiquette respecting their preferences and/or necessities.

Susan Ostlund is a HAL-PC member and volunteer.