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Dave's Beginners Guide to the Internet

What is Electronic Mail?

Electronic mail, or e-mail (and mail) for short, is one of the most popular uses of the Internet. Once you have an e-mail account you can send an electronic message (sort of like a letter) to just about anyone else with an e-mail account so long as you know their e-mail address.

If you have an internet service provider (ISP) or commercial online service you probably already have and know your e-mail address (If you don't know it, you can always badger technical support!) Most e-mail addresses are set up like this: it is your username, then an @ ('at') symbol, and then a domain name (something .com, .net, or .org in most cases).

For example, if you are on America Online (AOL) your e-mail address is where username is your AOL screen name. (Contrary to popular belief, not everyone uses AOL, so if you use AOL and someone asks you for your e-mail address, always remember to add the part or they might get an error message!)

Using e-mail is rather straightforward. Once you have an account set up, you just select the option that says something like "new e-mail message" or "create a new message". You'll probably be prompted with three boxes (called fields):

  • To:
  • Subject:
  • Body: (sometimes the body doesn't actually say body, it's just the big area where you type your actual message.)

In the To: field you type the complete e-mail address of the person who will receive the e-mail. You can type anything you want as the subject and body, although the length of the subject is limited. You usually want to keep the subject to just a few words describing the content of the body of the e-mail message.

You may also see options for attachments and forwards. You can add files to your e-mail by using the attachment option. You can forward (make a copy) of a message you receive from someone (if you have their permission if necessary) and mail it to someone else with the forward option.

You may also see fields for CC: and BCC: close to your To: field. CC stands for carbon copy. If you want to send a message to multiple people, add the extra people in the CC: field (usually you separate their e-mail addresses by commas). BCC stands for blind carbon copy. BCC works just like a carbon copy, except the e-mail addresses you type in BCC do not show up to the other recipients. (Example: You send a message To: Mary and BCC: Joey. Joey will see Mary's e-mail address, but Mary won't see Joey's e-mail address because you "blinded" it by putting it in the BCC field.)

There are two things about file attachments you need to be careful of. The first thing is that you need to limit the size of files you are sending. An attachment the size of a floppy disk (1.44MB) can take anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours for someone to receive, depending on the speed of their Internet connection. Get permission before sending large files to someone.

Caution: Be careful when reading e-mail. Most email that looks like its from a bank, credit card company, mortgage company, eBay, PayPal, etc, is actually a criminal trying to rip you off or steal your info.

To stay safe, NEVER click links in an e-mail message that takes you to a page that asks for ANY INFORMATION from you. Instead, go directly to the site. For example, if you want to check on your eBay account, open your web brower and type If you'd like to learn more about protecting yourself from this crime, go to Google and search for "phishing."

The second reason you need to be careful with attachments is because they are one of the most common ways for computer viruses to spread. As a rule you should never open an attachment from someone you don't know or don't trust. And even if you know the sender, don't open an attachment you are not expecting or an attachment that looks suspicious. Some viruses can destroy all the data on your computer so it's best to play it safe.

CAUTION: You can also get viruses by downloading executable files (usually .com and .exe on Windows computers) from web sites. While only a very small percentage of executable files contain viruses you still may get one. Don't download or run executable files from web sites you don't trust.

Next Chapter: What is Chat?