Calling the Internet a borderless world isn’t far from the truth, but try saying that every time you get an e-mail you can’t read. You know, one of those buggers that is full of incomprehensible code or one that has a mysterious file attached that refuses to open no matter how hard you click it.
As multimedia becomes more accessible, you’re bound to find more gee-whiz doohickies in your mailbox: goofy pictures from an uncle who has discovered photo manipulation, a sound file of a nephew’s first words, a risqué joke program from a friend. You’d think people would be satisfied with just keystroke creativity, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Of course, e-mail applications are becoming more adept at decoding all types of e-mail, but there will probably always be new and competing file types, compression methods, encryption schemes and so on. Add to that the different software platforms and you’ve got some intimidating obstacles to “borderless communication.”
But first, for those who’ve just joined the class, let me skim over a few of the basics. In most e-mail programs, the arrival of an attachment is indicated by a paper-clip icon or something similar on the e-mail. No, these aren’t sex toys or prosthetics; they are files that, for whatever reason, can’t be transmitted as text within the body of the e-mail. (Then again, attachments essentially are “text,” but unless you speak binary, you won’t be able to read them in their raw state).
MIME (Multi-purpose Internet Mail Extensions) is another key term. A definition of MIME’s role in e-mail is beyond the scope of this column. Suffice it to say, MIME can give pizzazz to plain old e-mail. MIME enables not only the transmission of images and sound through ASCII channels (read: e-mail) but also character sets other than English (for a primer on the way non-English text is handled on the Net see www.hf.uib.no/smi/ksv/char.html).
You know if you’ve received e-mail containing MIME by looking at the e-mail’s header. It might read:
Most popular (and up-to-date) e-mail applications are MIME-compliant, so you really don’t have to study the header to see the image. If you run into problems, however, this data could be useful. One factor to note is the encoding. There are several types, such as Base64, UUEcode and BinHex (the latter is used almost exclusively among Mac users).
Another factor is compression, which compacts files and makes for faster uploads and downloads. Some e-mail programs use a certain default compression. If you are sending between different platforms this might cause a snag. Helpful utilities are, however, easily within reach. Zip files, for example, are the compression standard for Windows users, but Mac users can still decode them with tools such as UnZip.
Often the default settings of an e-mail program will suffice. However, users who are about to exchange files via e-mail would do well to confirm the particulars in advance. Problem is, many novice users don’t know them. In other words, it would be great to ask the recipient if it’s OK to send a 100K TIFF code encoded with BinHex, that is if he or she speaks the same language.
At the very least confirm the platform of the recipient before you send any files. Various kinds of multimedia files can be passed from platform to platform, but in general applications are a no-no (though Java might change all that). For example, a Mac user will have little use for a file ending in .exe.
Which brings us to another aspect of attachments: file types. After a file has been decoded, it will most likely have a suffix, such as .jpg (an image), .mpg (a movie or sound file), or .zip (a compressed file). You’ll be on your way to computer literacy if you learn a few of these. For handy reference, see these resources: www.imc.org/terms.html, or www.matisse.net/files/formats.html
Note that plain ASCII e-mail has its pitfalls. Just because you copy text from your nicely formatted Word document into your e-mail, it doesn’t mean that it will appear the same to the recipient. In fact, there’s a 99.9 percent chance that it won’t. Quotation marks, dashes, yen signs, accents — they’ll all get garbled in the transmission.
The best way to ensure that the basic text arrives relatively intact is to save it as plain text first, thus eliminating any formatting incompatibilities (such as “smart quotes” that look very dumb on the receiving end), and then paste it into e-mail.
Now, if you have a document in which formatting and type styles are important, such as an Excel spreadsheet, an attachment is your best option. One precaution, though: Even if you get the encoding and the compression right, the receiver might not be able to open it. A document composed on a later version of Microsoft Excel might not be rendered properly in an earlier version.
If you want to send specially formatted e-mail, another option is to use clients such as Netscape’s Messenger or Microsoft’s Outlook Express which allow users to format in HTML without having to know the code. The caveat here is that the recipient needs an HTML-compliant reader (or to open it in a Web browser). If you see a bunch of “=”20″” characters in your e-mail this might be your problem.
For tips on how to take control of your e-mail, there are plenty of helpful resources on the Web. For a well-organized collection of guides and links, start at Everything E-Mail (everythingemail.net). Mac users should definitely click over to the Macintosh E-Mail Resource Page (macemail.com), which has a large number of home-grown tips and scripts, as well as valuable links.
Ultimately e-mail etiquette isn’t merely about avoiding such things as writing all in upper case. It’s also about taking into account technological differences. Do yourself and your e-mail recipients a favor and learn the finer of points of e-civility.