E-mail, which is short for electronic mail, offers virtually instant, one-way communication around the world via computer. It was one of the first methods of person-to-person communication made available through the information superhighway. In the early days of e-mail, simple text messages were sometimes difficult to manage, and adding pictures or documents was possible only if other software was available to make transmission from e-mail to computer possible. Current e-mail software generally provides easy-to-use options for attaching photos, sounds, video clips, complete documents, and Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) code.
Early e-mail access was typically provided by government agencies and universities to employees and special groups of people who needed to communicate with one another quickly and directly. Researchers and scientists were among the first consistent users of e-mail.
E-mail addresses are now available for a fee through commercial Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to anyone who has a home computer and a phone line or other means of Internet access. Users who do not care to contract with an ISP can acquire e-mail addresses through a variety of Internet web sites; well-known examples of free e-mail providers include Hotmail.com, Juno.com, and Yahoo.com. Although there is no direct cost to the user for these addresses, the services come with a non-monetary price. Sites providing such e-mail accounts usually are supported by advertising, and the e-mail accounts are often targets of that advertising.
E-mail vs. Snail Mail
E-mail provides a format for written communication that is different from the traditional postal service in number of ways. Messages can be delivered more rapidly through electronic means than on paper through what has been nicknamed "snail-mail." E-mail is generally less formal than postal mail. Messages are often written quickly and respondents can weave their responses into the original message, replying point-by-point to the writer's questions or comments.
Among the advantages of e-mail are speed and convenience. One advantage to using e-mail is the ability to send the same information to a number of recipients easily and simultaneously, complete with electronic attachments. Sending a copy of a message to interested parties at the same time as the intended recipient can save time by ensuring that everyone knows the details and has a chance to respond as needed.
Electronic mail offers new forms of communication that cross barriers of time and geography. Groups of people with similar interests can join together to share and discuss ideas via e-mail discussion groups. Each group can generate hundreds of messages from hundreds or thousands of users within a day. In some cases, discussion groups are moderated, with all incoming messages going to a single person to be screened before they are posted. This protects the entire list of message recipients from receiving messages that are not relevant to the group's discussions. Other lists are not moderated, allowing any list member to send any message to the entire group.
E-mail vs. Voice Communication
E-mail and telephone contact offer similar benefits in speed of contact. Answering machines and voice mail services provide options for asynchronous communication, similar to e-mail, where the recipient is able to receive messages on a time-delayed basis. With a sophisticated voice mail system, one message can be delivered simultaneously to a number of recipients on the same system, paralleling the ability of e-mail to communicate simultaneous messages and attachments to multiple recipients. This type of telephone delivery system is generally available only in business settings. One advantage of e-mail, however, is that it provides the option of communicating the same message to a number of people while also providing a text version of the message, instead of simply a voice message.
On the other hand, the voice message, whether live or recorded, offers certain advantages, as well. Listening to a voice message can give valuable information as to the emotional state of the speaker. Emotions conveyed through voice contact can clarify the meaning of a message that may be misinterpreted in e-mail format.
In an attempt to provide some emotional content to text-only messages, "emoticons" have been created; many are now widely recognizable. Emoticons consist of several keystrokes used together in a sequence to represent a facial expression. The most common are the use of a colon followed by a right or left parenthesis mark, representing a smiling face, or a frowning one, as in:) or :(respectively. Emoticons have become so popular that some word processing packages include smiling or frowning faces to replace typed in emoticons automatically.
Emoticons can be used to convey certain personal characteristics of a message's author as well. Emoticons can portray glasses, using the numeral 8 followed by a parenthesis mark, or a beard and a wink, made up of a semicolon, a parenthesis mark, and a right-facing angle bracket mark, as in 8) or;)> respectively.
E-mail for Business Use
E-mail has become quite popular for many business uses beyond communication within or between companies. As mentioned earlier, some Internet sites offer free e-mail accounts to attract users to the sites. Many of these are supported by advertising that is targeted toward specific consumer profiles. E-mail lists are also a valuable advertising commodity. They are used much like mailing lists for postal mail, or telephone lists for telemarketing.
For e-mail users who find advertiser-provided information valuable, or at least interesting, these e-mail marketing techniques are not a problem. There are some less scrupulous advertisers who send unsolicited and frequently unwanted messages to large numbers of e-mail accounts. This is a process known as "spamming." E-mail spam is often sent to discussion groups' e-mail lists, especially those that are not moderated. Various ISPs, such as Mindspring/Earthlink, offer their customers spam-filters such as the "Spaminator."
Although e-mail has been fully adopted by business, government, industry, education, and the private sector, concerns about security and privacy still exist. E-mail software and ISPs offer varying levels of security in the e-mail packages they provide. While most providers offer a security level that most personal users find fairly reasonable, there are questions of security in business settings that must be addressed, not only to avoid spam, but to avoid unauthorized access to e-mail messages and accounts. People with significant computer skills can circumvent security systems and illegally access e-mail accounts. There are constant improvements made to security for all types of computer networks, including e-mail, but there will always be hackers who respond to every advance in security with new efforts to break through security measures.
E-mail privacy is not only at risk through illegal activity. In most business settings, there are regulations about who has legal access to e-mail sent or received via company-provided accounts. It may be true that e-mail sent with a company-provided account is not accessible to anyone from outside the company, but each e-mail message may be considered company property and can legally be accessed by the appropriate department within the company. On occasion, corporate employees have been fired for using their company e-mail accounts in ways deemed inappropriate by their employers. Such objectionable use of company e-mail has included illegal betting, sending off-color jokes, forwarding chain letters, and sending pornographic photos.
E-mail accounts and messages may also be vulnerable to legal investigations. In the late 1990s and subsequent years, questions arose concerning e-mail contacts that U.S. President Bill Clinton made during ongoing legal investigations. Those e-mail messages were evaluated based on their content and their relevance to the investigations. Internet service providers were asked to provide information about account holders, who were then placed under investigation themselves.
E-mail provides a rapid and comprehensive method of communicating with others. Its low cost and widespread availability makes it a valuable tool for business and personal use. Advances in software and hardware are expected to help alleviate the privacy and security concerns that limit its use for highly confidential correspondence.
see also Internet; Intranet; World Wide Web.
Campbell, Todd. "The First E-Mail: Who Sent It and What It Said." PreText Magazine. <http://www.pretext.com/mar98/features/story2.htm>
"E-mail." Webopedia.com. <http://webopedia.com/TERM/e/e_mail.html>
The most important new medium of mass communication of the past 40 years was not in any way connected with television, moving pictures, or the recording industry; it initially emerged, instead, as a project of the U.S. Defense Department. In the 1960s, the depart-ment's Advanced Research Projects Agency, in coordination with several research institutions, came up with a system for connecting or "networking" distantly located computers using independent, dedicated telephone lines. Researchers using the system experimented with sending simple text messages to one another over the network. Soon, the trickle of research-oriented messages and data became a tidal wave of information exchange of all kinds. The new medium of "electronic mail" eventually changed the way we interact with our friends, co-workers, and families. It also brought our everyday reality much closer to Marshall McLuhan's pipedream of a genuine worldwide community rooted in technology.
The practice of sending electronic messages from one person to another actually predated computer networking. A few years before the ARPANET, users of "time-sharing"-style computer consoles developed a simple system of sending memos to a central "mailbox" located on a mainframe computer used by a variety of users at different times. Each user had a file of their own to which the messages were directed and were able to pick up their messages during the time when they were using the computer. The practice was important to the future development of electronic messaging, but had little or no utilitarian value at the time; it was a mere toy. The ARPANET engineers later picked up on the idea and decided to see if they could send small messages and memos from one computer to another. It worked; they then began to send messages over the span of the nationwide ARPANET itself. To paraphrase one beneficiary of the ARPA's research, it was a small step for a few computer geeks, a giant leap for the global village.
The system was not only useful for the researchers but also proved to be a pleasant pastime—so pleasant, in fact, that ARPA director Stephen Lukasik worried that it could jeopardize the entire enterprise. In Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon's history of the Internet, Where Wizards Stay Up Late, Lukasik said he told the researchers that if "you're going to do something that looks like it's forty thousand miles away from defense, please leave our name off of it." It was clear early on that e-mail was useful for much more than just the military and technological research for which the ARPA was founded in 1957.
By the mid-1970s, engineers discovered that messages could be sent through the ARPANET by those without official authorization to use it. The message-sending capability of this network was obviously universal, and through the demonstrated use of satellite technology, global. Anyone could tap into the network to send messages of any sort to virtually anyone else, anywhere else in the world. The message of this medium was limitless interactivity, not mere broadcasting. The ARPANET eventually gave way to a new, more enveloping network known as the Internet and the uses of e-mail quickly mushroomed.
The possibilities of the Internet were soon tested. In the early 1970s, individuals wrote anti-war messages and mass-mailed them; one electronically advocated Nixon's impeachment. Other mass-mailings became routinized around a variety of subject-headings that were of interest only to certain groups: this later became that part of the Internet known as Usenet. On Usenet, e-mail messages were sent to a central server and mass posted to a kind of electronic message board where all could read and even reply to the message. If one was interested in gardening and wanted to talk about it with other gardeners around the world, one could use software and server space to organize a group. Other forms of mass-e-mailings included discussion lists; in these, one needed to subscribe privately to the list and messages were routed directly to one's private mailbox rather than to a public message board.
E-mail also entertained in more traditional ways. Many used the Internet's e-mail capabilities early on to play fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. More serious uses of e-mail soon came to the attention of the U.S. Postal Service, and even President Jimmy Carter—who used a primitive e-mail system during his 1976 campaign—proposed ways of integrating the new technology into a postal system that originally delivered messages on the backs of ponies.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the culture that first blossomed in the 1970s began to flourish among a worldwide community of computer users. Hundreds of thousands of people now understood what it meant to be "flamed" (told off in a vicious manner). Multitudes decoded the meanings of the symbols called "emoticons" that attempted to convey facial expression through text. ;-) meant a wink and a smile: the messenger was "just fooling" and used the emoticon to make sure his plain text words were not misunderstood.
As the medium matured, private companies like Compuserve and America Online built private networks for individuals to dial in to send and receive electronic messages. New electronic communities formed in this way and were soon burdened with such "real world" issues as free speech, crime, and sexism. Many women complained of electronic abuse by the predominantly male on-line community. Predators sent electronic messages to children in attempts to commit crimes against them. Some of the private networks regulated speech in "public" forms of electronic communication and this met with scorn from the on-line community. Others used e-mail as an advertising medium, mass-mailing ads to hundreds of thousands of Internet users. This practice, known as "Spam," is held in almost universal disrepute, but is as unavoidable as smog in Los Angeles.
E-mail became ubiquitous by the late 1990s and the lines blurred between public, corporate, and private networks. By the late 1990s, many large corporations standardized their e-mail systems on Internet protocols so that interoffice mail shattered the physical boundaries of the "office" itself. Using e-mail, one could now effortlessly "telecommute" to work, rather than physically move from home to a separate workplace. With the boundarylessness of Internet-based e-mail, users could play at their work, and work at their play. The discovery of e-mail literally changed the ways that we live, work, and communicate with one another.
Abbate, Janet. Inventing the Internet. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1999.
Baty, S. Paige. e-mail trouble: love and addiction @ the matrix. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1999.
Brook, James, and Iain Boal, editors. Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information. San Francisco, City Lights Books, 1995.
Grey, Victor. Web without a Weaver: How the Internet Is Shaping Our Future. Concord, California, Open Heart Press, 1997.
Hafner, Katie, and Lyon, Matthew. Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Although invented in the 1960s, the popularity of e-mail took off in the 1990s. As the cost of connecting computers to the Internet (see entry under 1990s—The Way We Lived in volume 5) fell, e-mail became the easiest way for computer users to send written messages to one another. Its advantages over the regular mail are speed, convenience, and low cost. Word-processed documents, images, sounds, and moving pictures can be e-mailed around the world in a matter of seconds. While "snail mail" (via the postal system or an overnight service) is still important for transporting packages, legal documents, and the like, e-mail is set to become the key personal and business communication tool of the twenty-first century.
Since the 1990s, e-mail has revolutionized global communications. Curiously, it was developed during the Cold War (1945–91; see entry under 1940s—The Way We Lived in volume 3), a period when global communications were highly restricted. The U.S. Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) came up with e-mail as a way of communicating between computers in distant government facilities. At first, this was limited to computers within ARPA. In the mid-1970s, it was discovered that users from outside were using the network to send messages to one another. In the twenty-first century, Internet service providers use a very similar system to store messages in personal electronic mailboxes that subscribers can access at will.
E-mail is not just a communication tool. It has also changed how language is used. E-mails tend to be less formal than a letter, so "Dear Christopher" is replaced with a more relaxed "Hi!" E-mails can be written as the sender might speak but, unlike speech, there is no tone of voice, facial expression, or body language to help with meaning. Emoticons, symbols "drawn" using the computer keyboard, work around this problem. Some emailers add a "smiley" ";-)" to show they are joking, or ":-(" to show they are unhappy. The spread of mobile telephones (see entry under 1900s—The Way We Lived in volume 1) in the late 1990s has taken this further. Text messaging between cellular phones (see entry under 1990s—The Way We Lived in volume 5) is a form of e-mail, but the difficulty of typing text using a ten-digit telephone keypad soon led 2 a nu 4m of spelling.
As long ago as the early 1970s, e-mail was used by political campaigners to work for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994). By the late 1980s, it enabled activists in China and the former Soviet-bloc countries to communicate with journalists and supporters in the West. News of the buildup to the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing in 1989 emerged by e-mail, as did information about the revolutions in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. By the late 1990s, most governments had realized the value of e-mail and the Internet in creating an impression of openness. In 2001, Russian president Vladimir Putin (1952–) went one step further, answering questions sent in by e-mail on a live "Webcast."
Although e-mail communication can be informal, friendly, and liberating, it can also be a problem. E-mail allows writers to hide their identities behind invented names, something twenty-first-century criminals are all too ready to exploit. Adult sex offenders can pose as children in online discussion forums called chat rooms (see entry under 1990s—The Way We Lived in volume 5) with the aim of luring real children to a dangerous in-person meeting. Not being able to see the person with whom one is writing makes it easier for some people to be insulting or offensive. Sending offensive, attacking e-mail is known as "flaming." It is most common in online communities like newsgroups or chat rooms, in which people do not know each other well.
The ability to copy one message to huge numbers of addresses makes e-mail ideal for sending bulk advertising messages, or "spam," to many thousands of people. These e-mails are usually unwanted. By 2001, they were becoming less common as legitimate advertisers realized spam was putting off customers and laws forbid its use. More popular are "chain" e-mails. These work in the same way as a chain letter, but the speed of e-mail means they can circle the globe in a matter of hours. Chain e-mails use up space in mailboxes and waste a great deal of human time and energy. For this reason, chain e-mails can be more costly to business than software-based computer viruses.
In fact, the most serious problems with e-mail are also the problems with older forms of written communication. The speed and simplicity of e-mail simply makes problems more intense. All of the benefits of e-mail are new. Documents can be shared over distances of thousands of miles and senders can receive almost instant responses. E-mailers can communicate with groups of others simultaneously. Travelers can make contact with friends, relatives, or employers without being tied to telephone calls. E-mail has already brought major changes to how people look at work, think about where they live, and who they consider part of their community. In the 1990s, it triggered a revolution in working at home—"telecommuting"—that in the twenty-first century is only just beginning.
For More Information
Hafner, Katie, and Matthew Lyon. Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996; also available at http://www.olografix.org/gubi/estate/libri/wizards/email.html (accessed April 2, 2002).
Jordan, Shirley. From Smoke Signals to E-mail: Moments in History. Logan, IA: Perfection Learning, 2000.
Loftus, Margaret. "Great Moments in E-mail History." U.S. News Online (March 22, 1999); http://www.usnews.com/usnews/issue/990322/22hist.htm (accessed April 9, 2002).
Rothman, Kevin F. Coping with Dangers on the Internet: Staying Safe Online. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2001.
Tunstall, J. Better, Faster Email: Getting the Most Out of Email. New York: Allen and Unwin, 1999.
Wolinsky, Art. The History of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1999.
Electronic messages sent over a network are known as e-mail. Users may send messages to a single recipient or to a group of several recipients anywhere in the world. In many cases, messages are transmitted along high-speed data communications networks in a matter of seconds or minutes. Once a message is received, a user may view it, save it, delete it, or forward it on to other recipients. E-mail programs consist of two main components: the store-and-forward messaging system and the send-and-receive interface, which is what a user sees when working with an e-mail program. The text itself usually is in ASCII format and sent via Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP). Advances in technology like Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) allow e-mail users to attach files—including graphics, audio files, word processing documents, spreadsheets, and even executable programs—to their messages for recipients to open on their machines.
The first e-mail message was sent by Ray Tomlinson in 1971. Tomlinson came up with the idea for e-mail when he was working for Bolt Beranek and Newman, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based research and development outfit contracted in 1968 by the U.S. Department of Defense to construct ARPA-net, a network that would allow the government to have messaging capabilities in the event of nuclear war. To create his e-mail program, Tomlinson used a rudimentary file transfer protocol known as CYPNET along with SNDMSG, an electronic messaging system that allowed users of a single machine to leave messages for each other on that machine. He decided to use the @ (pronounced "at") symbol to identify messages that were going to be sent along the network to another machine. When Tomlinson sent his new e-mail program to other ARPAnet users, who loaded it onto their computers, e-mail essentially was born. However, it was not until years later that Tomlinson and his colleagues recognized just how widespread e-mail would become as a communications tool for educational, social, and commercial endeavors.
The Internet, which eventually replaced ARPA-net, had an immeasurable impact on e-mail technology. Although Internet-based e-mail programs emerged in the 1980s, most simply allowed local area network (LAN) users to communicate with one another. It wasn't until the 1990s, when the Internet began to function as a portal between incompatible online services like America Online and Prodigy, that e-mail truly began to evolve into the open communications system it is today. Although measuring the technology's use is difficult, it is clear that many millions of users send many billions of messages every year.
This method of quickly and easily communicating with large numbers of people is not without complications. One major issue for many e-mail users is the increasing amount of unsolicited advertisements, commonly known as spam, they receive. Many companies and individuals purchase huge mailing lists of e-mail addresses from various information sources and send unwanted advertisements to recipients. In some cases these advertisements are legal, and in other cases they are not, but the senders are quite often very difficult to trace. Many proprietary e-mail programs, such as those offered to workers by an employer, include filtering technology that helps to block spam. Users of freely available Internet-based mail services, such as Hotmail and Juno, are more likely to receive spam.
Another problem inherent in an open communication system like e-mail is the ease with which viruses can be spread via e-mail message attachments. Many virus programs are disguised as attached files from colleagues or friends. Once they are unwittingly opened by a recipient, the virus reads the recipient's address book and forwards the virus on to each user in that address book. Because the e-mail looks as though it was sent by the victim of the virus, the likelihood that future recipients will open the disguised virus is quite high.
As e-mail technology has extended its reach across the globe, individuals and businesses have begun to use it for increasingly diverse reasons. A multitude of Web sites now exist that allow individuals to create free personalized greeting cards they can e-mail to family members and friends. Students in online courses are able to e-mail their work to professors, who then offer feedback via e-mail. Online retailers quite often e-mail receipts to customers within seconds of a purchase. These same retailers also may e-mail customers to let them know when their goods are actually shipped, and if a customer has indicated they would like to receive information in the future, they may send e-mail messages regarding upcoming promotions or special deals. Some online travel companies e-mail discounted fares each week to a list of people who have subscribed to such a service. While there is no way to predict how e-mail might be used in the future, new ways in which the technology can be used for educational, social, and commercial endeavors are certain to develop.
"A Brief History of Email." Kirkland, WA: Vicom Technology Ltd., 2001. Available from www.vicomsoft.com.
Campbell, Todd. "The First E-mail Message." PreText. March 1998. Available from www.pretext.com.
"E-mail." In Ecommerce Webopedia. Darien, CT: Inter-net.com, 2001. Available from e-comm.webopedia.com.
"E-mail." In Techencyclopedia. Point Pleasant, PA: Computer Language Co., 2001. Available from www.techweb.com/encyclopedia.
"E-mail or Email." In NetLingo. NetLingo Inc., 2001. Available from www.netlingo.com.
Electronic mail, or e-mail, developed as part of the revolution in high-tech communications during the mid 1980s. Although statistics about the number of e-mail users is often difficult to compute, the total number of person-to-person e-mails delivered each day has been estimated at more than ten billion in North America and 16 billion worldwide. Faster and cheaper than traditional mail, this correspondence is commonly sent over office networks, through many national services, and across the internet.
E-mail is less secure than traditional mail, even though federal law protects e-mail from unauthorized tampering and interception. Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA), Pub. L. No. 99-508, 100 Stat. 1848, third parties are forbidden to read private e-mail. However, a loophole in the ECPA that allows employers to read their workers' e-mail has proven especially controversial. It has provoked several lawsuits and has produced legislative and extralegal proposals to increase e-mail privacy.
Congress intended to increase privacy by passing the ECPA. Lawmakers took note of increasingly popular communications devices that were readily susceptible to eavesdropping—cellular telephones, pagers, satellite dishes, and e-mail. The law updated existing federal criminal codes in order to qualify these emerging technologies for constitutional protection under the fourth amendment. In the case of e-mail, Congress gave it most of the protection already accorded by law to traditional mail. Just as postal employees may not divulge information about private mail to third parties, neither may e-mail services. The law provides criminal and civil penalties for violators: In cases of third-party interception, it establishes fines of up to $5,000 and prison sentences of up to six months. In cases of industrial espionage—where privacy is invaded for purposes of commercial advantage, malicious destruction, or private commercial gain—it establishes fines of up to $250,000 and prison sentences of up to one year.
Commentators have noted that cases involving employers reading their employees' e-mails tend to favor the employers, especially where the employer owns the equipment that stores the e-mail. Many companies also provide written policies regarding the ownership of stored e-mail messages, indicating whether the employer considers stored e-mail to be the property of the employer.
E-mail raises additional issues of privacy in the context of communications between an attorney and client. Because communications between attorney and client must remain confidential, questions have arisen about whether sending unencrypted e-mail messages by attorneys to clients could pose ethical problems. In 1999, the american bar association issued its opinion that the mere use of unencrypted messages does not pose ethical problems.
E-mail raises some evidentiary problems as well. Commentators have noted that the origin of some e-mail messages might be difficult to authenticate, while messages might constitute hearsay. Nevertheless, many courts have admitted e-mail messages into evidence. To protect against disclosure of private or sensitive information, some attorneys advise employers and employees to exercise caution with e-mail, as it can be subpoenaed. Some experts have advised users to delete their e-mail regularly, and even to avoid saving it in the first place. Still others advocate the use of encryption software, which scrambles messages and makes them unreadable without a digital password.
"Harris, Micalyn S. 2002. "Is Email Privacy an Oxymoron? Meeting the Challenge of Formulating a Company Email Policy." Saint John's Journal of Legal Commentary 553.
"Joseph, Gregory P. 2003. "Internet and Email Evidence." ALI-ABA Course of Study.
Pearlstein, Mark W. and Jonathan D. Twombly. 2002. "Cell Phones, Email, and Confidential Communications: Protecting Your Client's Confidences." Boston Bar Journal 20.
e-mail / ˈē ˌmāl/ (also e·mail) • n. messages distributed by electronic means from one computer user to one or more recipients via a network: [as adj.] e-mail messages. ∎ the system of sending messages by such electronic means: a contract communicated by e-mail.• v. [tr.] send an e-mail to (someone): you can e-mail me at my normal address. ∎ send (a message) by e-mail: employees can e-mail the results.DERIVATIVES: e-mail·er n.
E-MAIL. SeeElectronic Mail .