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section heading icon     Email

This page considers electronic mail. It looks at technical primers, regulatory issues (in particular spam, copyright and privacy), hoaxes and developments such as ENUM and Rich Media.

It covers -

section marker icon     introduction

Electronic mail is a text-based asynchronous store-&-forward application on the internet and many intranets. It predates the emergence of the web. It is used by an estimated 79% of the online population and has become a significant part of life in most large organisations and many households, as pervasive and unremarkable as the telephone.

Typically, messages are generated on a personal computer or other device such as a personal digital assistant. Those messages are held on a mail server and then forwarded to the device used by the recipient - which might be a personal computer, PDA or even mobile phone. That forwarding might be direct (eg across a private network within an organisation's building) or via another mailserver that routes messages from the internet. Most email over the net conforms with RFC 2822 (a standard format covering protocols such as SMTP, POP3 and IMAP).

The speed and pervasiveness of email - like SMS - means that many people assume that all messages are received and that they are received instantly. In fact, some messages go astray and problems with servers mean that delays of several hours (or more in exceptional circumstances) are conceivable.

The initial email systems were restricted to text ... and text of the plainest formats. It subsequently became possible to attach files (eg wordprocessed documents and spreadsheets), to use enhanced text formatting and to feature hyperlinks to web pages.

section marker icon     primers

Apart from Palme's Electronic Mail (Norwood: Artech House 1995), which offers a useful although somewhat dated account of business and regulatory questions, social impacts and technical such as X.400, several short primers may be of assistance.

These include The E-mail Frontier: Emerging Markets and Evolving Technologies (Reading: Addison-Wesley 1994) by Daniel Blum & David Litwack and Marshall Rose's Internet Messaging: From the Desktop to the Enterprise (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall 1993) which replaces his The Internet Message: Closing the Book with Electronic Mail (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall 1993).

For the X.400 standard consult Essential Email Standards: RFCs and Protocols Made Practical (New York: Wiley 1999) by Pete Loshin & Paul Hoffman, Sara Radicati's Electronic Mail: An introduction to the X.400 Message Handling Standards (New York, McGraw-Hill 1992) or Cemil Betanov's Introduction to X.400 (Boston: Artech 1992).

Christina Cavanagh's Managing Your Email: Thinking Outside The Box (New York: Wiley 2003) and David Shipley & Will Schwalbe's Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home (New York: Knopf 2007) are a useful vade mecums for people who feel overwhelmed by messages or have a compulsion to email in haste, repent at leisure.

section marker icon     interaction

For interaction studies consult Connections (Cambridge: MIT Press 1992) by Lee Sproull & Sara Kiesler, Intermedia: Interpersonal Communication in a Media World (New York: Oxford Uni Press 1986) edited by Gary Gumpert & Robert Cathcart or Psychology & the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal & Transpersonal Implications (San Diego: Academic Press 1999) edited by Jayne Gackenbach.

They're more impressive than The Psychology of the Internet (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1999) by Patricia Wallace and the often silly Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1996) by structuralist Sherry Turkle. We've pointed to other studies throughout our Digital Environment guide; they include Jacques Attali's gnomic Millennium: Winners & Losers In The Coming Order (New York: Times 1992) and Digital Nomad (New York: Wiley 1997) by Tsugio Makimoto & David Manners.

section marker icon     impact

There is no major study of the economic or cultural impact of email.

The Network Nation (Cambridge: MIT Press 1993) by Roxanne Hiltz Starr & Murray Turoff and No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behaviour (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1986) by Joshua Meyrowitz are dated but insightful.

Naomi Baron's Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved & Where It's Heading (London: Routledge 2000) extends her 1998 Letters by phone or speech by other means: The linguistics of email and paper on Writing in the Age of Email: The Impact of Ideology versus Technology.

David Crystal's Language & The Internet (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 2001) explores the same territory but is excessively reverent; we preferred the wit and analysis in The Way We Talk Now (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 2001) by Geoffrey Nunberg.

section marker icon     Privacy

The Privacy guide elsewhere on this site offers a detailed discussion of privacy issues and regulation. In particular it notes differing government and industry responses to ongoing reports demonstrating that many businesses systematically monitor email created/received by their employees, with the rationale that computers and connections are corporate resources rather than private property.

The Security & InfoCrime guide looks at privacy enhancing tools such as encryption.

section marker icon     Copyright

Correspondence - whether in the form of ink on paper or electronic mail - is not located in a copyright-free zone.

The Intellectual Property guide elsewhere on this site includes a page discussing the copyright status of email, something that is recurrently in the news following incautious ministerial statements after passage of Australia's 'Digital Agenda' copyright reforms.

In principle, an email message addressed to a single recipient has the same copyright protection as a handwritten letter, ie it is protected by copyright (the author owns copyright in the text, the recipient merely owns the physical embodiment - paper and ink - of that intellectual property).

section marker icon     Defamation and hate speech

Most jurisdictions similarly make few distinctions between defamation and that involving ink on paper. A detailed profile about online defamation principles, cases and academic literature is here. There are broader pointers to particular studies in exploring free speech and other issues in our Censorship, Politics and Governance guides.

Examples include Russell Weaver's cogent paper Defamation Law in Turmoil: The Challenges Presented by the Internet, the interesting but somewhat utopian analysis by Brian Martin, Lilian Edwards 1997 paper Defamation & the Internet: Name Calling in Cyberspace, Marty Sutcliffe's paper Defamation on the Internet: Searching for Community, Identity & Statutory Solutions and The Law of Defamation & the Internet (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 2001) by Matthew Collins.

Our Politics guide includes a page dealing with online vilification, hatespeech and hate sites. Use of email for stalking is covered by telecommunications, anti-harassment or other legislation in many jurisdictions.

section marker icon     Spam

Unsolicited commercial email (spam) has emerged as a major consumer, business and regulatory issue. AOL for example estimated in 2001 that spam accounts for 30% of email to its subscribers, with between 5 and 8.5 billion messages pa. Some mail management services have since claimed that the percentage is now higher. A January 2001 study from the European Commission estimated that internet users pay €10 billion in connection costs just to receive spam.

We have explored the significance of spam in our Security & InfoCrime guide.

It is supplemented by a more detailed profile that discusses specific features of spam regulation in Australia (in particular the Spam Act 2003) and a complementary note on spam regulation in the US, Canada and other jurisdictions.

The guide points to consumer and industry organisations such as the US Coalition Against Unsolicited Bulk Email (CAUCE) and Australian Coalition Against Unsolicited Bulk Email (CAUBE). It also discusses documents such as the 1999 CommerceNet paper (PDF) on Unsolicited Commercial E-mail: Legislative Solutions and David Sorkin's 1997 paper on Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail & the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991.

>Ultimately the best response to spam may be a combination of national legislation such as Australia's 2003 enactment (underpinned by international agreements), filters and measures such as the IIA's When in Doubt: Don't Try - Don't Buy - Don't Reply initiative.

section marker icon     forgeries, viruses and hoaxes

Email has also gained attention because of forgeries, viruses and hoaxes.

Forgeries have essentially taken two forms -

  • identity theft (sometimes characterised as 'joe jobs') - discussed in more detail here
  • the manipulation of address information by viruses or humans - discussed here

As noted in this site's Contact page, not all email messages are legitimate: it is quite easy to forge an email address to give the appearance of a message from Bill Gates, the Australian Prime Minister, the Telstra CEO or indeed the operators of this site. Responses have varied and, as yet, there's no consensus about authentication mechanisms such as digital certificates or trusted email systems that would provide comfort for SMEs and individuals.

Many users of Windows machines have found to their sorrow that email is also a mechanism for delivering computer viruses, ie software with effects such as corrupting a personal computer's memory or unauthorised dissemination of files and email address details. As suggested later in this profile, management of devices on the internet and of email is not a task that should be blithely left to your ISP: closing open ports and regular updating of anti-virus software is essential.

Past communication revolutions indicate that the growth of media literacy has been somewhat slower than the opportunism of scammers.

The US government Computer Incident Advisory Center (CIAC) has an excellent set of resources about email hoaxes and chain letters.

There is an analysis of the latter at Donald Watrous' Chain Letter page. This site features a detailed note on the 'Nigerian' or '419' email scam and chain email scams.

section marker icon     the email tax?

The Taxation guide features a detailed discussion of proposals for a Tobin-style 'byte' tax, typically a fraction of a cent on every email sent/received. Initial proposals centred on funding initiatives to bridge digital divides, in particular various 'north-south' divides'. More recently there have been suggestions that some form of tax would inhibit spam.

Those proposals have been reflected in recurrent hoaxes; one example is discussed here.

section marker icon     the death of email

2006 and 2007 saw pronouncements of the 'death of email', variously attributed to generational change ("email is for old people") and to recipients abandoning the medium because of information overload and spam.

Pundits have announced that it has been "replaced" by SMS, IM, microblog tools such as Twitter and online social spaces such as MySpace. Claims of the death of email. like that of Mark Twain, are overstated. Email in advanced economies should instead be considered to have normalised, become just another communication mechanism in commercial and personal life rather than something that replaces existing media. With much of the population now online double digit growth in the number of people using email for the first time is no longer to be expected. Significant growth is however still occurring in emerging economies and will presumably do so, barring global catastrophes, in the coming decade.

Many of the laments for the supposed demise of email are deeply traditional, echoing denunciations that the telegraph, the telephone and then email meant the death of letter writing.

Chad Lorenz pontificated in Slate in 2007 that

The sense of loss I feel about the decline of e-mail has less to do with how we communicate than with what we communicate. The means by which we deliver a message affects its content. While the rise of the BlackBerry has proven that e-mail can be adapted for fast-burst communiqués, the medium is best-suited for longer musings. As opposed to instant messaging, e-mail provides the breathing room to contemplate what we're writing and express nuanced thoughts. A well-tended e-mail inbox and outbox can serve as a sort of diary, an evolving record of your curiosities, obsessions, introspections, apologies, and heart-to-hearts. Instant messages, on the other hand, are like Post-it notes, handy for a few minutes but hardly worth saving. While IMs and text messages have a throwaway quality, e-mail is for the sentimental. I still have some of the first flirtatious e-mails I exchanged with my wife in college. I have thoughtful monologues from friends in the midst of crises. I have e-mails from my parents that I envision showing to my children someday.

Recurrent predictions of 'the death of the net' (aka internet meltdown) are discussed here.

section marker icon     ENUM

The Network guide on this site discusses email-related addressing initiatives such as ENUM (a standard adopted by the Internet Engineering Task Force) and the proprietary WebNum standard. Both should, in principle, permit electronic mailboxes that allow a single contact identifier for individuals - covering email, mobile phone, home phone, business phone and fax, and associated services.

For a brief introduction see Anthony Rutkowski's September 2000 column ENUM: the Internet's Glueball Infrastructure and the ITU's ENUM page.

section marker icon     Rich Media and usability

Although statistics are problematical, it is clear that there's increasing commercial interest in 'rich media':

  • using HTML for the display of text within email messages
  • incorporation of still graphics and animations within messages
  • inclusion of audio and even video.

Overall, much of the enthusiasm seems unfounded, since the firewalls used by many organisations exclude such messages and different browsers display the information in a substantially different way.

The Usability of eMail Subject Lines, a paper by John Rhodes, Daniel Sloat, James Griffith & Gregory Benoit explores one of the neglected areas of the usability and marketing literature, surprising given the volume of email dealt with most days and its significance.

Its authors highlight comments by Jakob Nielsen in his September 1998 Alertbox article on Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles & Subject Lines, noting however that there is little empirical information about responses to email and there is disagreement about aids such as the Uni of Wisconsin guide.

Among other comments it concludes that users are more likely to open a message that begins with "RE:". They are also very likely to delete one beginning with "FW:".

section marker icon     the @ symbol

A brief note on use of the @ symbol in email and popular culture is here.

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version of April 2007
© Bruce Arnold | caslon analytics