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Introduction to Email Print

Email is still perhaps the most used service on the Internet. Sooner or later, almost every Internet user sends or receives a message. It is also one of the oldest Internet services, and some of the more technical details are shrouded in some mystery and mystique. What I hope to do in this article is to cover some of the basics of email, and to give you some tips on maximising the benefit of email to you. These notes apply to you regardless of the email software that you use.



Addressing Your Mail


When you send an email message, you need to address it in the same way you would address an envelope to send it through the post. Every message has at least one recipient, whose address appears in the "To:" field of the message header (the area at the top of each message - sort of like an envelope). With most email programs, you can specify more than one address in the "To:" field, and therefore send the same message to multiple recipients.


If your program does not support this, you can use the "CC:" field instead. "CC" stands for "Carbon Copy", and basically means "send an identical copy of this message to". A special variation of "CC" is "BCC", or "Blind Carbon Copy". BCC works the same as CC, except that the mail server will remove the addresses of the recipients before the message is delivered to each of them. This means that when the message is received, the reader cannot tell that it was also sent to other people. It's a neat feature for keeping confidentiality.


There are many other fields that can optionally appear in a message header. Most of them are only used in very special circumstances, and if you know you need to use them, you already know how!





You may have heard this term before, and not really understood what it meant, or why it was so useful. Internet email is basically a very simple means of transferring information between you and someone else. That information, by design, is plain text and nothing more. If you need to transfer something other than text, you need to use an attachment.


All you need do is create the data, photo, or any other type of file and save it to disk. Once you're in your email package, you can then "attach" that file to your message. Think of it just like attaching multiple pieces of paper together with a paper clip! That's why many email packages have an "attachment" button with a paper clip icon on it!


You can attach any file you like from your computer. For example, you can email a configuration file to a company to assist in a support issue, or send the recorded sounds of your child's first words to relatives anywhere in the world! The possibilities are endless. You can also attach as many files as you like to a single message. It is a good idea though to limit the size of your messages, just in case there are problems transferring the mail. Smaller messages have a better chance of successful transmission.


When attachments are sent, they are "encoded". Encoding allows any kind of data to be sent with your message. As in most areas of computing, there are several "standards" for this. In most environments, "MIME" encoding is used, although "BinHex" is common amongst Macintosh users. Whatever scheme you use, the receiver must be able to support the same type (so that they can decode your files when they get them).


Note that because of the way attachments work, your file actually GROWS in size when it is attached to an email message. This means that for sending large files, there are more efficient options available.



Effective messaging


Have you ever realised that exactly how you put your email together has a direct effect on the person receiving it? You should always re-read your messages, and ask yourself, "Does this really say what I mean?" That's etiquette rule #1. Number two is to use emoticons, acronyms and similar tools to your advantage. Do a Google Search for Emoticons to find out more.


If you really want people to read your email, a third point to watch is message length. Most people (myself included) tend to discard long emails if they can't find anything important in the first few lines. Long letters may be all the go for personal matters, but especially if you have a business message to get across, you need to keep it as short and sweet as possible.


One of the dangers when it comes to email length is called "excessive quoting". Of course, the opposite - no quoting - is often as bad or worse. The middle ground - selective quoting - needs to be done carefully to avoid misinterpretation. So what is quoting anyway? Quoting is a technique that's often used in...



Replying and Forwarding


If you aren't familiar with these terms, basically they mean:


Reply A message entered in response to a message you have received.
Forward To send a copy of a message you have received to other people by email.


When using either of these commands, most email packages will include the original message in your new message. Each line will be prefixed with a symbol - probably ">". This is called quoting.


Quoting is useful with replies especially. It allows you to respond to individual points or comments in the original message. This helps you to remain "to the point" in your writing, and also gives the reader a context in which to read your remarks. The use of some quoting is always preferable to assist in clear communication.


The parts of the quote which you are not addressing can be deleted to keep your message length to a minimum. This will increase the likelihood of it actually being read. When you delete part of a quotation, it is good "email etiquette" to replace the deleted sections with some kind of marker - like ... , [...], or [part deleted]. Of course, you need to be careful that you're not deleting part of the quote which is still relevant to the discussion.



Summary: Generally speaking, quoting is good, selective quoting (carefully done) is better, and no quoting is pretty hard to follow in most cases.



Chain Letters


As with regular mail, email has it's share of chain letters. In fact, email probably has more than it's share because it's so easy to send mail to multiple recipients.


Here's a rule for chain letters that can't fail. DELETE THEM! DON'T FORWARD THEM, OR REPLY TO THEM, JUST DELETE THEM!


Chain letters serve no purpose on the Internet than to clog up the lines and servers that YOU use, making the whole Internet slower than it should be. Sure, one little email message has a virtually immeasurable impact on performance. Send a couple of hundred of them, and the impact can be seen. Several hundred people sending several hundred messages each results in tens of thousands of messages to be delivered. Now we have a noticeable impact!


If you do send a chain letter, expect to get PLENTY of FLAMES (messages back, generally from angry people!). It is likely that we will receive complaints from other Internet providers too, and we have to take some action on these complaints, in the spirit of cooperation.


A couple of the "classic" chain letters found on the Internet are:


Good Times Virus - Warns of an email carrying a virus. Email is text, folks! Unless there's a program attached, and you run the program, you can't get a virus from email.
"Good Luck Totem" - Brings good luck to you, but only if you send it to a number of people within a specified time.
"Send money, add your name to the list" - Enough said. Why not just add your name and get money from others?


There are so many that we couldn't list them all. Use your judgement, and if you want a second opinion, take a look at the F-Secure Virus Hoax List.



Mailing Lists


One other email issue you may come across is "Mailing Lists". Some of these are like traditional mailing lists. Typically, they are run by companies who have products or services you may be interested in. You sign up for these lists and periodically, the company sends you information. That's simple enough.


The other type of mailing list is the type that's runs by a "List Server", and this type is fairly unique to email. These mailing lists are used to provide a discussion forum for people who are interested in a specific topic. The number of messages being sent through any mailing list varies greatly. "Low Volume" mailing lists will generate just a few messages a week. "High Volume" lists are likely to generate hundreds of messages each week! Unless you have the time to sort through them all, these lists can be bad news! Sadly too, joining a list server is often a great way to increase the volume of spam that you receive.


Although there are several different "list servers" around, most mailing lists work something like this. First, you must join a list by "subscribing". Once you are subscribed, you will normally start receiving messages within a couple of days, often within hours.


When you want to send a message, you can either send a normal email to one of the people on the list (by sending directly to their address), or you can send it to everyone on the list by addressing it to the list's email address. Every list's address is different, and you are advised of the details when you subscribe to the list. Let's assume you just subscribed to the "model train enthusiasts" list (one I've just made up). To send a message to this list, you might have to send it to " This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ".


Once the list server receives your message, it will either act on it straight away, and send it to all of the list subscribers, or hold it for the moderator to approve it. Some lists use a moderator (a human who "vets" each message) to ensure that discussion between list subscribers remains relevant. Whichever is the case, your message will be distributed to everyone sooner or later.


To get off a mailing list, you need to ask the server to "unsubscribe" you. The exact procedure for subscribing and unsubscribing varies between the different list servers, and the instructions probably appear in each message you got from the list, or were sent to you when you subscribed.