Email symbol (non-standard). Image credit: Flickr
Email symbol (non-standard). Image credit: Flickr

Email or e-mail is an electronic communication system through which two computers or more can correspond or interact with each other through text, files, etc. over the Internet. Email is the digital alternative to postal letters. Messages and other types of data can be sent easily, quickly and inexpensively through email. The receiver and sender have unique email IDs; this ensures the message reaches the right person, with the recipient also being aware of the message source. The “@” symbol determines the mail’s destination. Email is extremely useful and accessible, which explains why it’s so widely used.

Email History

Email has been around since 1965. It’s not exactly clear who or which entity created email, since there are individuals such as V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai and Ray Tomlinson and entities such as MIT and ARPANET claiming they made email.  

Despite having been invented in the 1960s, it was only during the ‘90s when email picked up base commercially. The user base increased significantly during the period because the Internet had just picked up and several companies were investing heavily in marketing and promoting email. During the early stages (1960s), email service was available only to high-profile individuals and entities such as military groups and governments.

Email Message Components

An email message usually comprises the following components:

  • Header
Some of the various email sections. Image credit: Flickr
Some of the various sections of an email dashboard. Image credit: Flickr

The header consists of information relating to the mail sender and recipient. Generally, it comprises the subject (message topic), sender and recipient’s email addresses, and attachments (if any). Some other elements are carbon copy (CC) and black carbon copy (BCC). CC’ing is sending the message indirectly to an individual(s). BCC’ing is sending the message indirectly to an individual(s) without the primary recipient’s knowledge.

  • Body

The mail message’s body comprises the actual message, which could be just plain text and may also comprise images and external links. Images and links are usually part of marketing messages, and not personal conversations. The content could be accompanied by the sender’s email signature, especially in case of business conversations.

Based on the email program, the actual attributes of an email message could vary slightly. But the aforementioned are more or less standard.

The Journey of an Email

An email’s journey begins as soon as the sender hits the ‘send’ button. Once sent, the email service provider (ESP) prepares the mail by applying filters to it (which is basically organizing the mail). Then, digital signature for mail authentication is applied, and interaction between the ESP and ISP (Internet service provider) is encrypted.

ISP audits the information sent by the ESP. During the process, the ISP checks the mail’s format, metadata and overall structure. It also looks into the reputation of the ESP. Once the mail is accepted, the content is checked. During this stage, the ISP checks for spam using its spam filter. The mail won’t clear ISP’s audit process if the recipient address is invalid, or the sender is blacklisted or notorious for spamming the Internet space.

Generally, spam messages make it through but they end up in the recipient’s spam folder, which most likely goes unnoticed. Marketing and business promotion messages may get categorized as well. Personal or individual messages get the maximum love from the ISP since they head directly to the recipient’s primary inbox folder. The prior conversations between the sender and recipient also determine how smooth and easy the journey would be for the mail.

Types of Email

An email message can be classified based on its message, recipients, etc. For example, personal messages are usually sent to friends and family members. Marketing email, also called bulk email, is business email sent to an individual or a group of people simultaneously at regular intervals. These could be newsletters or messages relating to shopping coupons, event announcements, etc.

Another form of business email is a transactional email. These are personalized business email messages that may or may not be sent to multiple people at the same time and may or may not have generic text. Mails sent out to inactive business customers or community members, reminding buyers the products they left in their online shopping cart, providing product purchase and shipment tracking details, account-related notifications or updates, username or password reset details and subscription renewals, etc. are some examples.

Email Etiquette

Example of a bad email message. Image credit: Flickr
Example of a bad email message. Image credit: Flickr

Unlike chat messages, an email conversation should entail some thought and attention to certain specifics. A badly crafted email message can potentially mar the professional and personal image of the sender, especially in a formal conversation. The following are certain things to keep in mind when drafting an email message:

  • An email message should be brief, simple and to the point. Long email messages can overwhelm, bore and easily dissuade the recipient from taking the time to read the entire message.
  • The formatting must be on point, and no fancy font styles, colors or sizes. If it helps with reading, bullets can be used.
  • Subject lines should also be short and precise, properly capitalized and the right precursor to the actual message. And they should have a particular focus-area and not comprise multiple topics.
  • Capital letters should be avoided, unless one is angry and wants the anger to reflect onto the other side. Writing an email message in CAPS is equivalent to yelling within the online communication space.
  • Also, it’s not recommended to write and send an email when angry, depressed, etc. as the human brain is not ready for a meaningful conversation then.
  • Incoming mails should be forwarded only if necessary, and the message must accompany the reason why it was forwarded.
  • Huge file attachments should not be sent before receiving the permission of the recipient, as large attachments could easily clog the recipient’s mail system and block other incoming mails. If possible, the attachments must be compressed before sending them.
  • An email message must be proofread as spelling mistakes and bad grammar can cast an unfavorable impression on the recipient. Reading the email aloud would help detect the errors.
  • Personal or private email messages shouldn’t be part of email at work. Confidential information such as tax information or bank account details shouldn’t also be part of an email message (personal or business).
  • Punctuation marks should be used like normal. For instance, there’s no need to have multiple “????’ signs when a single ‘?’ sign suffices, as such writing could make the sender appear childish and unprofessional.
  • A typical email signature. Image credit: Flickr
    A typical email signature. Image credit: Flickr

    Using smileys and emojis are not recommended too, especially within formal conversations. Trendy abbreviations such as ROFL, IMHO, FTW, etc. and informal salutations such as “hey”, “yo”, etc. must be avoided as they look unprofessional too.

  • When sending a message to a stranger or talking to someone for the first time via email, it’s advisable to start with a brief personal introduction and then jump to the actual purpose.
  • Email should be copied to people other than the intended recipient only if those indirect recipients are vital to the conversation.
  • An email signature is a must if one wants to make it easier for people to reach him/her easily elsewhere. The signature can include name, job profile, contact details, and social media profile links.

Email Advantages

The following are the pros of email:

  • Using an email is easy and inexpensive. There is minimal training and basic Internet skills needed to get started with email.
  • Email is speedy and effective. The recipient gets the message within seconds after the mail is sent. Moreover, an email message can be sent to a single individual or multiple people simultaneously living in any part of the world.
  • Email messages are pro-environment since they prevent trees from being cut down for paper.
  • An email message is ideal for formal online conversations. Chat and messaging services cannot replace email when it comes to a full-fledged or formal conversation that needs to be documented for future reference.
  • Similarly, storing and organizing email correspondences is much easier compared to accumulating and sorting paper mails.
  • There are no time restrictions. Email messages go through during any time of the day, even on holidays.
  • Email messages are convenient. They can be sent from anywhere, any device with an Internet connection. Images and files can also be attached to email.

Email Disadvantages

Email has its fair share of drawbacks too.

  • Spam or junk email is a major problem, which makes email less of a communication tool and more of a marketing weapon.
  • Email can be annoying and hinder productivity at work. The messages may eat away a significant amount of work time if they are not handled systematically.
  • Email messages, when not attended to, can bulk up and create a huge backlog pending clearance.
  • Email messages can be sent quickly, but the response from the other side is not as swift and instant as chat messages.
  • Nothing is 100 percent safe online. Therefore, sending critical business data through email would always be a risky proposition.
  • Email is still not as personal as a face-to-face or telephonic conversation.
  • Large audio and video files cannot be sent through email.
  • Without Internet, there is no email. So people without access to the Internet cannot use email.

Email Client

Gmail is a popular web-based email client. Image credit: Flickr
Gmail is a popular web-based email client. Image credit: Flickr

Also called mail user agent, an email client helps a user access and manage email. It allows adding attachments – such as documents, spreadsheets, audio files, etc. – to an email message and also permits saving attachments from messages received. There are different desktop email clients or webmail service providers such as Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo, etc. that provide the service for free. There are also some clients that charge a fee for the service. The free service providers make money through ads. The paid clients offer extra services such as more storage. They also help personalize email addresses, customize spam filters, etc.

On Controversies Surrounding Email’s Invention

As mentioned earlier, it’s not clear who truly invented email. But it is clear the biggest inventions in the world were not courtesy big corporations – be it the airplane (Wright brothers), telescope (Galileo), elevator (Elisha Otis), light bulb (Thomas Edison), radio (Guglielmo Marconi), etc. In fact, there is nothing truly called an invention. Most inventions have been refined and enhanced versions of a primitive prototype.

For instance, devices that lifted people had been in existence since ancient times. During the Industrial Revolution, these devices used electric or steam engines and ropes to elevate people. But since ropes had the tendency to wear down over time and break, Otis came up with the safety break that prevented the elevator from descending and crashing when the rope broke. This made elevators much more useful and safe on high-rise buildings such as skyscrapers.

Historically, organizations or entities have mostly not contributed to or invented anything. They have always been notorious for capitalizing on an idea, primarily for their own (monetary) benefits. So if an individual like Shiva Ayyadurai claims he invented the email, it’s most likely incorrect to admonish the person right away. He may not have invented email but his contributions could still be significant. It’s therefore wise to dig deeper and learn more about the matter with an open, unbiased mind.