In a world before affordable fax machines, e-mail was a useful tool for researchers, academicians and government employees who needed to share reports, images, databases and other documents quickly and accurately.
In just a few years, though, electronic mail has moved from simply being a useful tool to an important accessory in the arsenal of business tools. No business card is complete without at least one e-mail address. In fact, e-mail is the most often used service of the internet, and it's easy to see why.
E-mail also offers communication and community to individuals and groups in our increasingly fractured society. At a fraction of the cost of long-distance services, children can keep in touch with parents across the continent, international students can connect with friends and relatives back home, and even closed, totalitarian societies find it difficult to block e-mail from emigrees working to reform their native society via electronic revolution.
At some point, this useful tool also became a useful toy. Computer bulletin board systems (BBSs) sprang up where you could leave and retrieve messages from others. If the BBS's system operator* (Sysop) was sitting at the computer, you could type messages to each other in real time*, the high-tech equivalent of chatting over the back fence. Before long, this feature became available to multiple users connected to the system.
To send e-mail to someone, you must know the person's address; your service provider and the Internet take care of routing the message to its destination. If you don't know the address, try the FAQ site on finding people on the Internet, or check two of the most popular and complete directories: WhoWhere? and Four11.
There are two important points you should always remember about using e-mail:
- E-mail doesn't enjoy the same legal right to privacy as a letter sent through the postal service in an envelope. Think of e-mail as a postcard anyone can peek at.
- Many companies have policies declaring that employee email is not private. If your company has a policy in place, then it's not private.
- Because of the way e-mail is transmitted through the Internet (see the section on the evolution of the Internet) your message -- or parts of it -- may remain on every intermediate host computer through which it passes.
A good rule, then, is never to use e-mail for anything you can't later defend or explain away. If you're still unsure, check out the Beginner's Guide to Effective Email.
Meanwhile, test your e-mail skills by sending a message from our electronic postcard service, Postcards from the Edge in cyberspace.