Email - an Introduction Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Email - an Introduction

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Email was invented shortly after the ARPAnet had been set up, and within a year of the first workable emailer appearing electronic mail had taken over 75% of the net. It's fast, it's easy and it has quickly become the number one time-waster on home and business computers alike. After you get used to it, it becomes hard to use the phone and pointless to use a fax. Combining the chattiness of the phone with the contemplative nature of old-fashioned letter writing, email is probably the most useful and far-reaching tool the net has to offer. It has, in short, revolutionised communication. Between email and Internet Telephony, you may never have to make a long distance call again.

Online Email Accounts

If you got this far then you probably can. There are dozens of emailer programs out there, many of them available for free, and then there are the free web-based mail services available from places like Yahoo, Hotmail, Google and Excite.

If the only access you are likely have to your email is at a friend's house or in a cybercafé, or if you want to keep your email away from the prying eyes of your employer (yes, it is legal for them to read your private mail if sent from work) then you're best off going with one of the free web-based mail services. All you have to do is come up with a unique name to go in front of the '@' and you're set.

The other advantage of having a web-based account is that you can retrieve your mail from any machine with Internet access, and with many of the services you can also retrieve mail from all of your POP3 accounts via your Internet mail account. The disadvantage is that you're limited to the provider's software and you have to stay online for the duration of your emailing time. If you're paying for the phone bill or the Internet time, this can be expensive.

However, if you have regular access to your own computer at home or at work...


Almost as heated as the browser debate (though not quite as fraught with scandal, intrigue and poorly-executed bowl haircuts) is the emailer debate. If you're not using an Online Service (in which case you're pretty much stuck using the software provided) then you've probably already been unwittingly drawn into the debate.

There are many popular emailers: Netscape Messenger, Microsoft Outlook Express and Eudora among them. Messenger and Outlook Express are free, as is Eudora Light. All early versions of the programs came with silly ad-ons (Express had the option of watermarked stationary, Eudora had 'voice mail'), but all are up to the essential task: to send email.

So it's all down to what you like to see on your screen. If you're partial to lots of white, go with Outlook Express. If you like something a little less glaring, go with Messenger. If you don't like fussy buttons or windows, then try Eudora Light.

Sadly it is that simple. All three all go through what seems like several incarnations every year, so what is true in one version won't be true in the next, so always try to get the most recent version of the one you use. The authors will have used the time between this version and the last to pilfer ideas from other emailers and clean up their user interface.

Setting Up an Email Account

Computer programmers like nothing better than lingo. They hang out en masse in the basements of engineering buildings on the campuses of state universities and wait for a computer to come up with new words for them to turn into complicated acronyms. They explain their new terms with short bursts from sawn-off sentences and make things sound way more complicated than they actually are, and nowhere is this more true than on the Internet. Emailer programmers have carved out a particularly neat niche for themselves and their uniquely special language. Setting up your emailer to do anything but smile up benignly from your screen can be an awkward, lonely and dull process. Here's a hand for you to hold.

To receive and send email, you need an account on a mail server. There'll be a box in your emailer program somewhere where you can give it your account details, so that the emailer knows how to access the account. It'll ask you for all kinds of details - here are some of the things it'll ask for, and what they mean (though note that, confusingly, different emailers ask for things by different names, but we'll try and cover it all here so that you can deal with any of them).

Identity Setup

This is the part of your account setup where you tell it about yourself.

  • Your Name - How you want your name to show up in emails that you send. It can be your full name (e.g. 'Septemus Q. Claggett') or a nickname (eg 'Gimpo').

  • Email Address - The email address that you want to appear on the emails you send. This doesn't necessarily have to be the same as the email address of the account you're using, but you want it to be an address that will go to an account you read.

  • Organisation - This is the company or institution you work or study at. You can just leave this field blank if you want to.

Server Setup

This is the part where you tell it how to use the email account on your server.

  • Username or Account Name - For most people the username is whatever it is that goes before the '@' in their email address (e.g. if your email address is '[email protected]' then the username is 'fred'). If you use an ISP and have a login name that you use with it, it might be that too.

  • Domain Name - The domain bit is the part that comes after the '@' (e.g. '').

  • Mail Login - Normally another name for Username, but sometimes your ISP will allocate you a login name that is different to the first part of your email address.

  • Password - The password you either choose or have assigned to you that allows you to pick up your email. If you've got a password to access your ISP, it's probably the same as that.

  • Incoming Mail Server (POP3 or IMAP - see below) - This is like a PO Box: it's what your emailer talks to when you want to get your mail. It often appears as or, where is the domain name you specified above.

  • Outgoing Mail Server (STMP) - When you send mail, this is the server that receives email from your emailer and sends it to wherever it need to go next. It will usually be the same as your incoming mail server.

  • POP3 or IMAP - These are two different methods of storing mail for your emailer to collect. POP3 just puts all your mail in a big pile and lets your emailer take it away and store it on your computer, where you can sort it into folders. IMAP prefers to keep the mail on the server, and all your folders stay there too. IMAP's better if you want to access your mail from lots of different computers, but POP3's better if you want to do lots of work with your mail while offline. POP3 is much more common than IMAP, so unless you've been told specifically, your server probably uses POP3.

You should have received all of this information when you signed on with your ISP, and won't need most of it if you've signed up with an Internet Service. Either way, any technical support line will be able to walk you through if you're still stuck.

Sending Email

Now, let's assume that everything is set up correctly and you are not currently online (if you are online you can choose to work offline with a command in the File drop down menu; if you would like to always be offline when you go into your emailer, select this in the Preferences menu).

At the top of your emailer you will have a list of icons, and one of these should say New or New Message or something along those lines. Otherwise you can order it from the drop down menu.

Another window will open, this one with a 'To' section, as well as 'Subject', 'CC' and 'BCC' window.

In the 'To' section, enter the email address of the person you'd like to have the email. In the 'CC' section, enter the addresses of anyone else you'd like to receive the email (it stands for 'carbon copy'). In the 'BCC' section, enter the addresses of anyone you'd like to receive the email without everyone else knowing about it (it stands for 'blind carbon copy').

In the 'Subject' section, type the subject of the email. Try and make it informative and relevant - the trouble with the thousands of emails that are sent every day bearing the lone word 'IMPORTANT!' as their subject is that they don't give a clue as to why they're important.

If you have a section for attachments, ignore it at the moment. We'll get to that later.

Now type your email. It works like any other word processing or simple text program. Don't worry if your emailer doesn't have a spell check: it's a well known fact that people who send emails can't spell, type or walk and chew gum at the same time.

Now click the 'Send' button.

Depending on how you've set up your preferences, your computer will either store the message in an out tray until you tell the program to send and receive all messages, or it will dial out and send the message immediately. When your out tray is empty, the message has been sent.


The word on email has always been that sending an email without encryption is like sending a postcard. And it's sof course possible that there is the occasional person out there who really wants to browse through someone else's email, but it seems like a lot of effort to go to to read somebody else's email that simply says 'L was greit yesday. Do 'gain sometim.'.

But if you are concerned and if your email doesn't come with its own encryption system, then PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) is by most accounts the only way to go.

Receiving Email

If you just sent your first email then you can receive them, too. Just click the 'Check Mail' or 'Send and Receive Messages' button and you'll have it. Regardless of the program, you should have a little progress bar to let you know exactly how well (or badly) it's doing.

When your new messages come in, unless you've specified differently, they will be in the standard in-box. There will be some mark distinguishing read mail from unread mail; it may be in bold text or have a little envelope next to it. By clicking on any part of the line containing information about the message, you should be able to open it.

What to do with Email

So you've got your first email from someone other than your emailer. Well done. You have friends. There are now four things you can do with your friend's attempt at contact.

Delete it - You simply highlight the email you want deleted and either hit the 'delete' key on your keyboard or click on the 'delete' button (usually a rather uninspired trash can icon).

File it - Drag and drop the message line from the inbox into the folder you'd like the message to be in. You can make new folders by selecting the appropriate option in the File menu. As you start receiving more and more email, it may become necessary for you to start using Mail Filters that automatically sort your mail into different files. You will find this function in either the 'Tools' or the 'Edit' menu.

Forward it - Click on the 'Forward' button at the top of the program, enter the appropriate addresses and click Send, and your message will be forwarded.

Reply - Click on the 'Reply' button. Respond to the message either line by line, before the sender's text or after it, and press Send.

Forwarding Email

You just got email. You're excited. You haven't got much to say, but you want to make sure everyone hears it anyway. You just got some important information sent to you about the mating habits of dung beetles, and you feel you should share it with everyone you have an address for. And someone sent you a great joke about a Jewish mailman so you just thought you'd send it along. Your friends might understand. They might also learn to hate you, but they'll understand. However:

Do Not Send Chain Letters

Email chain letters aren't the same ones that you transcribed by hand in purple as a child. They're much worse. They hardly ever promise money and never ask you to send on a pair of clean knickers. Chain letters come in a number of different forms that you might not even think of as part of a chain. look:

  • Virus Chain - A popular form of adult chain mail is the virus warning, telling you of a lethal virus heading your way that will monkey around with your computer. It's not true. Emails are all in text format, and a virus can not be embedded in text. The ever popular Melissa virus was sent by email, but as part of a binary attachment - a word processing document in this case. The moral is: don't open an attachment that you haven't been warned about and don't pass on virus warnings.

  • Shergolds - A little boy named Craig Shergold is sick in hospital with a terrible brain tumour and wants to get into the Guinness Book of Records for receiving the most get well cards... Craig thanks you, but he's now in his twenties and is feeling pretty good, thanks. He did indeed receive the most cards - so many in fact that Guinness has now closed the category. Because of the grand success of Craig's juvenile plea, he will forever more have requests of this kind named after him. This includes things like widget drives for wheelchairs, Doritos packets for Dyslexia and the like.

  • Make Money Fast - Not true, not any of it. This type of chain letter particularly can be considered spam, especially as it often comes from an unknown source. Chuck it to the dog.

And the list goes on. Through savings bonds and children's books and the modem-tax rumour. Stop worrying already and don't let people get the best of your good nature (or your greedy black heart) - but always, always, think carefully about what you send and to whom. Not everyone has your soft heart or sense of humour.

Replying to Emails

After you've clicked the 'Reply' button, most emailers will then bring up a separate window that quotes all of the text of the message you're replying to, but with little greater-than signs (">") in front of each line of text. (The text may also show up in a different colour.)

Tradition splits at this point. Most people like to respond to sections of the original email after each point, paring down and cutting out text that is no longer relevant to the correspondance. Other people like to start an entirely new message, leaving the whole of the old text at the bottom. Most people prefer to receive the former, since it cuts down on the amount of irrelevant text that they have to download (and it makes it more obvious as to which bit of the original mail the reply is about) but it's also more effort.

The choice is yours. Just remember to click 'Send' when you're done.


You may have noticed a paperclip in your emailer. Like the bendy paperclip you may have once ejected your computer disks with, its original intention was to attach documents to other documents (unlike the bendy type of paperclip, however, this one will not relieve your computer of unwanted plastic).

To attach a file from your computer to an email, you either specify the file from the toolbar running across the top of your window, or you simply drag and drop the file you want attached into the attachment section of your emailer (or into the email message area itself if you don't have a separate attachment section). It's really that easy.

When sending attachments, bear in mind their size and the connection speed of the recipient. Sending cousin Terry a 20 megabyte game may seem like a good idea but if he's on a 28.8k modem it'll take him at least a couple of hours to download it (and he won't be able to get any of his other mail in the meantime).

Oh, and don't forget to click 'Send'.

Opening Attachments

This is not always quite that simple. In most cases, however, the attachment will open easily enough when selected. Images will often open without even being prompted. However, if you do not have the necessary program to open the file on your computer, you're not going to be able to open it regardless of how it's arrived in your computer. It's worth giving it a go in a few applications, however, by saving it first to your desktop and then dragging and dropping it into programs similar to the one from whence it came. This will typically work with text files, if not so often with others. But you never know.

A Final Note About Attachments

Do not open a file from someone you do not know. While text is harmless and cannot carry viruses, some other files can. Programs are the most common carriers (especially programs that promise to show you pretty but pointless things, such as firework displays - while you're oohing and aahing, they're spraying horrid bugs all over your hard drive) but word processing documents and spreadsheets can also hide nasties.

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