What Is Email?

A Basic Overview of Electronic Mail

Image of computer with smart phone and other tabletop things
Pexels.com / CC0 License

Lots of people use email every day to message friends and family. They check their email account all day long, use email at work, sign up for dozens of websites with their email address, and install an email program on their phone, tablet, computer, and maybe even smartwatch.

It's clear that email (electronic mail) has become one of the most prevalent forms of communication. In fact, email communication is not only used in lieu of letter writing, it has also replaced telephone calls in many social situations and in professional environments.

So, what is an email and how does email work? There's a lot that goes into an email behind the scenes, but we won't cover all of that here. Instead, let's take a look at the two most important topics: what an email is and why people use email so often.

What Is Email?

An email (also written as e-mail) is a digital message. Instead of using a pen to write a letter on paper, you're using your keyboard (or sometimes just your voice) to write an email message on an electronic device like a phone or computer.

Email addresses are written with a custom username at the beginning followed by the email service provider's domain name, with an @ sign separating the two. Here's an example: name@gmail.com.

Here are some other email basics:

  • Sending the email: When the email is finished and has been addressed to the recipient's email address, sending it allows the message to reach the intended recipient, or recipients if you're sending a group email.
  • Email transport: Email servers transmit messages from the sender to the recipient. SMTP is the name of the protocol used to send email messages, and POP or IMAP servers are needed to understand how to download electronic mail to the email client.
  • Fetching new mail: If you've got new mail in your mailbox, you simply have to tap it or click it to open and read the message, as well as to view any file attachments.

What Is an Email Used For?

There are several reasons so many people use email every day:

  • Speed: The speed at which an email can be sent and received is a huge benefit to most people. People can communicate in minutes or seconds from anywhere, whether it be within the same building or across the world.
  • Convenience: Emails are quicker in some instances than making a phone call, where you might be left on hold for an extended period of time or forced to engage in lengthy conversations. Instead, if you have a quick question for someone, sometimes it's easier to shoot off an email that can be answered at a speedy pace.
  • Attachments: It's simple to attach any file to an email message. It's just as easy to email a teacher your essay as it is to send someone a group of vacation pictures or email a spreadsheet to a coworker.
  • Accessibility: Email accounts are like large folders for not only private messages but also files and other important information. Good email clients make it easy to organize, archive, and search through your emails, so any information contained in an email is always readily accessible.
  • A Record: Email provides a record of a conversation that you don't have if communicating verbally. It's easy to print emails for hard copies or you can utilize your email provider's large storage space to keep everything online as long as you need to.
  • Unlimited space and time: Unlike texting, you have unlimited space to write as much as you want in an email. You can also spend as much time as you want to write an email, revising it as many times as you need to before sending it off.
  • Free communication: Unlike some forms of communication, like long distance calling and physical mail messages, most email providers give you free access to an email account. You can pick your own email address, send and receive all the electronic mail you want, and store everything online without ever paying a dime.
  • Security: Some email services are built specifically for privacy and security, so users can be confident that messages and files are hidden from everyone but the intended recipients.

Email Flaws

Unfortunately, email's big problem is unsolicited mail, more commonly known as spam.

With hundreds of these junk emails in your inbox, the occasional good email can get lost. Fortunately, though, sophisticated filters exist that go through your new messages and sort out the unwanted ones automatically.

To report spam correctly, do the following:

  • Identify the real source of the message.
  • Find the ISP the sender used to send the message from.
  • Identify the correct person to contact at that ISP.