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Hidden 1x1 pixel image in JoelOnSoftware e-mail

I enjoy reading Joel's articles.

The notification e-mail so far have been in simple text format. The latest one, "Strategy Letter V", is now in HTML format. This is controversial, but I prefer plain text because I can choose my preferred font face and size, and I can print out the e-mail without loosing information (because links are not hidden.)

But more disturbingly, I noticed a slight delay opening the e-mail. Looking further revealed this hidden image tag:

img src="http://whatcounts.com/sf?r=47&l=378&s=1308281&f=2" width=1 height=1 border=0

Oops, why does Joel want to track who is reading the e-mail? I'd rather unsubscribe until this "glitch" is fixed...

Peter Thoeny
Monday, June 17, 2002

You're assuming this link was for tracking. It's not. It helps our system determine who is capable of receiving HTML and who is not.  Joel sent out his most recent email from our system using our multipart MIME feature which, by default, has the "sniffing" image present. The "sf" servlet is to set format. However, we have recommended that Joel take advantage of our tracking features. It's possible (as is evident with this thread) that this will cause some within his audience to be concerned. Our position, though, is that tracking can be quite valuable and helps publishers like Joel prepare content and formatting that's useful to the largest segment of his audience.

Joel's providing a great service and resource to his readers. Considering it's free - shouldn't he be able to accurately tell how many people are reading his content and following links within his email? But, it's entirely up to him to decide which of our features he wants to use.

As for plain text being a better format to copy content from, you may be right. Depends on the content. However, if HTML messages are nicely prepared with ample navigational aides and links, you may find reading their content easier and more efficient.

David Geller
Monday, June 17, 2002

Not all e-mail programs will properly obey this, I'm afraid. Some turn off network access for their HTML viewer because of privacy and virus concerns. So, while I read the e-mail in HTML form, you never received a "ping" from me.

You may want to consider that when formulating your statistics.

Brad Wilson
Monday, June 17, 2002

Who's this David Geller guy?

Look, I'm just wondering
Monday, June 17, 2002

i'm sure a software development company can add a field to their mailing list database specifying the user's preference for HTML or plaintext emails.

And I'm also sure they could add a pair of radio buttons to the email form so we can choose our preferred format.

Maybe someone should ask nicely.

James Wondrasek
Monday, June 17, 2002

David Geller runs whatcounts, the company which graciously provides (at no charge) the subscription email service I use for my mailing list.

Joel Spolsky
Monday, June 17, 2002

However, if HTML messages are nicely prepared with ample navigational aides and links, you may find reading their content easier and more efficient.



nope.  never.  I dont think I have ever read an html email that was clearer and more efficient than a plain text email.
They take longer to download, they are bigger, they tend to have all sorts of pointless formatting.

<g> I guess my very strong feeling is than an email should *never* require navigational sidebars to render it readable, if it does, its badly written.

..As far as I can see all the advantages of html email are on the side of the company sending it..and are related to tracking and counting readers.

...you just mind your own business...
Tuesday, June 18, 2002

OK - hand over your browser. We're sending you back to Gopher...

Fixed-spaced fonts are typically harder to read than proportionally spaced ones. That might be one advantage to HTML email. I'd hate to give up ClearType.

But your opinion is just as valuable as the next persons - so I'm sure Joel will take it into account before his next deployment.

David Geller
Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Hi Mr Geller,

"OK - hand over your browser. We're sending you back to Gopher..."


<g> that misses the point nicely, I thought we were discussing email.

The internet is, of course, a wonderful way of receiving and serving both information and services.
...on the other hand, I have yet to meet anyone (aside from your own good self :) who seriously claims that html is an efficient (or even good) way of sharing that information..

I have always thought of html as a sadly limited accident of history that we really have to do away with totally before the internet can grow into its infancy.

Its neither powerful enough to create a really good UI, nor efficient enough to beat plain text as a good, effective way of communicating.

So, Joel, *please* keep html out of my mailbox...and if you want information about myself, my computer, or the software I use...do ask, you have given me more than enough enjoyment (and food for thought) to give me reason to look upon your request for information about my setup favourably...and yet even now I can feel my goodwill withering away under the mostly baseless feeling that you are trying to 'trick' information out of me.

...not really a privacy lunatic...
Tuesday, June 18, 2002

David Geller wrote:

"Fixed-spaced fonts are typically harder to read than proportionally spaced ones. That might be one advantage to HTML email. "

It's not an either-or situation.  I can view my plain-text e-mail messages in any font I choose.

Anonymous coward
Tuesday, June 18, 2002

I despise HTML email for a variety of reasons. And frankly, considering the fact that most of us probably stare at monospaced fonts all day (being coders and all), I hardly think the studies that show they're tougher to read really apply to us.

I use a lovely font called "ProFont" designed as a slight tweak to Monaco to make it even more suitable for reading on screens. I use it in email, in code, in my terminal windows, in BBEdit, and elsewhere.

A radio button on the sign-up page is all that was required. Like others, I got the HTML email, didn't enjoy opening it, and didn't send a ping to the script because my email client blocks such transmissions as well.

Erik J. Barzeski
Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Personally, I use a text based mail reader (mh).  Yes it's old, and ugly but it's extremely easy to script though.  In any case, I would like to continue receiving Joel's emails; however, I most certainly won't convert them from html into basic text.  I hope he provides a text/html prefrence.

Old and grumpy VAX hacker
Tuesday, June 18, 2002

"Fixed-spaced fonts are typically harder to read than proportionally spaced ones."

When I read comments like this, sometimes I wonder if usability is a cargo-cult science.  Sure, this maxim probably has a basis in fact -- when it comes to reading large swaths of English prose.  But I dare say you'll never find a programmer who uses proportional fonts in their code editor.  Joel himself, ironically, has written in favor of monospaced fonts in certain situations:

[ http://www.joelonsoftware.com/uibook/chapters/fog0000000063.html ]

Simply because HTML has beaten out plain text in the web space does not prove it is superior in email.  Ad-hoc, user-push small messages is an entirely different form of communication than client-pulled published information.  Many users (including myself) prefer sending and receiving plain text messages because (a) not everyone can read HTML mail (b) email communications usually don't require sophisticated formatting and in fact (c) the simpler format of plain text email messages makes them easier to read and navigate than your usual gaudy too-clever-by-half ransom-note HTML email.

If you prefer HTML email, fine, but at least don't assume we do too.  Make it a user option. 

Alyosha`
Tuesday, June 18, 2002

OTOH surely Joel has the *right* to get what information he can from those who read his articles and subscribe to his email service.
Its a free service he offers, and we can choose not to partake, but so long as we choose to take advantage of it its up to him whether or not he chooses to collect information about us.
If collecting information about subscribers and those who read his articles is going to improve the service he offers, where's the problem?


...and come on people, lighten up.  who *cares* whether he send his notification using html or plain text, they both do the same job.

paranoia is a disease
Tuesday, June 18, 2002

"You're assuming this link was for tracking. It's not. It helps our system determine who"

the key word is "who". if it were not for tracking then it would not be possible to determine "who"

yeah, right
Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Joel really needs to post a privacy policy to clear up what, if anything, is being tracked.

David Burch
Saturday, January 18, 2003

Interesting responses.... I prefer a well designed HTML email any day. Looks like I'm the black sheep.

Just so you know, newer tracking software gets around mail clients that strip out the query tags. So, even if you have a newer mail client, that doesn't mean you're not providing that uniquely identifiable request. All you have to do is download any image, regardless of whether-or-not your mail client thinks it is safe to download.

-RJ
Wednesday, November 19, 2003

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