Electronic mail or ``e-mail'' does not require detailed explanation, since its basic concepts are identical to those of traditional surface mail: there is a sender who sends some written message to one or more addressees with the help of a computer program. Although the message is sent directly to a certain computer, it usually goes through a number of transferring computers and this may take some minutes or even one or two hours if there is a lot of international traffic on the net. For the sake of convenience the subject and date of the message is indicated in the header together with the e-mail address of both the sender and the recipient. For technical reasons the e-mail header may also contain some additional information referring to the route or the content of the message.
E-mail addresses have a rigid structure that indicates the user's name on the net and the server computer that offers the mailing services. A typical e-mail address looks like this:
Contrary to phone numbers, e-mail addresses usually give some information as to their owner: the above (fictitious) address belongs to Joe Smith at the server computer of the Faculty of Arts, University of Toronto, Canada.
Due to the diversity of e-mail systems it is impossible to give a general guide; however, the existing systems can be divided into two major groups: those academics who use campus-wide networks may check their mail on network terminals by logging in to the server computer. Those who work outside the campus usually access the server via ordinary phone line. There are pros and cons to both methods, but PC mail software is usually more user-friendly than those of server machines. As the WWW tends to become a shell for all other forms of Internet communication, popular web-browsers (e.g., Netscape) have started to include mail functionality. These mail functions are very easy to use and offer a straightforward solution for including WWW references into mail messages, but usually they offer fewer services than dedicated mail software.
Although there are a number of different e-mail systems and software packages, international standards ensure compatibility between them. This is, however, only a relatively low level of compatibility: only the characters of the standard English alphabet can be transferred safely via e-mail. Technologies and guidelines have been developed to include accented characters, text formatting (e.g. bold, italic, etc.) and even images or sound files into the message body, but so far none of these has reached the status of a generally accepted international standard. The so-called MIME (or Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) coding is the method most widely supported by mail software. Other methods (e.g. ``uuencode'') encode the entire message file to be sent; thus a word-processor file with rich formatting (footnotes, columns, etc.) can be sent without any compromise. However, these files can only be read after correct decoding. If both sender and receiver use the same modern e-mail software they do not have to bother with coding, it is done automatically. Modern software also allows the user to attach word-processor (or image and sound) files to the message, thus in fact combining the two methods discussed above.
E-mail offers all the functions of paper-based services, but it is usually faster and easier to use: there is no need to buy envelope and stamps, and no queuing in the post office. Moreover e-mail lacks all the secondary ``physical'' features of traditional letters: no header, handwriting, and individual signature. Perhaps due to this and also to its rapid and highly convenient nature, the style of e-mail messages usually becomes far more informal than that of traditional letters. Letters sent via e-mail are often fragmented, sentences are long or incorrectly segmented as if the text were the transcription of an oral conversation. The spontaneous character of e-mail is often enhanced with so-called ``emoticons'', special-character-combinations used as graphic indication of emotions in the linear text: ``:-)'' means ``I'm joking,'' ``:-('' stands for ``I'm sorry.'' In other words standards of electronic letter-writing are different - and from a certain point of view inferior - to those of its paper-based predecessor. For example, most Hungarian e-mail users are ready to give up the use of accented characters as their transmission is unreliable in present-day e-mail systems - in spite of the fact that the Hungarian writing system includes a number of such characters. Some consider this an unfortunate compromise or a deterioration of the language, while others find it the victory of practice, because the lack of accents causes misunderstanding only in relatively rare cases.