Internet citizenship

"Thank you very much indeed, Mr Burgess." (I was glad to have got in the 'mister'.) "Is there anything I can do for you?"

I fully expected him to say no, but instead he looked at me rather hard and said:

"Well, perhaps, there is."

My curiosity was at once aroused.

"Could you take a message for me?"

L P Hartley, The Go-Between

Electronic mail

Electronic mail (e-mail), by this measure, is a pretty good technology. If you want to master the Internet, learn e-mail. Forget Java and Flash and building a killer Web site - e-mail is the most important thing on the Internet.

Why? Because e-mail is the single most popular use of the Internet, bar none. In the jargon of the trade, it is the 'killer app'.

It is far more popular than the World Wide Web (Web). Almost everybody who is on the Internet uses electronic mail. There are a few people who only use the Internet to look at the Web, but they are well and truly outnumbered by people who use e-mail and never look at the Web at all.

Why is e-mail so popular?

E-mail reinforces people's existing relationships with other people. One of the most common uses of electronic mail is to set up meetings. "Lets have lunch" is a pretty common e-mail message.

It allows people to talk to other people around the world, cheaply and easily. My partner, Neroli, is the Web master for RMIT International. Every day, she would get mail from all sorts of places: Venezuela, Jordan, Russia, Europe, all over the place. Every time it happened, it gave her a buzz. We have a friend who is working in the States at the moment. He kept us posted via e-mail about his upcoming wedding. Things like that make us feel like we are still part of his life.

It is convenient: it works like an answering machine, but in text. And it is as easy to reply to a message as it is to read one.

Where its @!

E-mail addresses always contain an '@' symbol. Web addresses never contain an '@' symbol.

So if has an '@' symbol in it, it is an e-mail address. If it doesn't, it is probably a Web address.

How does it get there

Electronic mail (e-mail) is the most useful feature of the Internet. You can send messages to anyone in the world, as long as you know their e-mail address.

Here is what happens. You compose a message to someone, type in their address and a subject line and send it off. Within minutes, it will have arrived and be waiting for them to read it. If, for some reason, it takes longer than 24 hours, you will receive a notice that it has been delayed.

The Internet takes care of how the message actually gets there. It does this by keeping an eye on where the message has come from, and where it is going to. For example, my full electronic mail address is:

My 'name'

So (working backwards), you know that I am from Australia (au), talking to you from an educational organisation (edu) called RMIT. (Please note that there are never any spaces in a URL - I have just put them there for this example.)

If Bill Clinton ( wants to write to me, he sends his message to '

Giving good e-mail

Here are some hints for good e-mail practice, especially if you are going to be using it in business:

How I use e-mail

Here is how I use electronic mail in my work. It automatically starts up when I turn my computer on, which I do as soon as I get to work. I put in my password and the mail that has arrived overnight appears on my screen.

It is automatically sorted by filters that I have set up. Basically, these filters separate mail into three groups: mail from individuals and mail from mailing lists. I used to have a filter for mail from my old boss. My boss, who sat in the next office, probably sent me more mail than any other person that I knew. She was really clever with her e-mail.

These filters roughly correspond to the importance that I place on the mail: mail from my boss was a priority and mail from other people was very important. Mail from mailing lists could safely be ignored - I would get to it when I could.

Mail from my boss usually came in the form of copies of mail that she had received from other people and that she had sent to other people. When she forwarded something to me, she often asked me to reply. She was using the message as a trigger to delegate work. When she copied mail to me as she sents it to somebody else, she was keeping me informed of what stage our latest project was at.

Mail from other people can be anything from a set of minutes for a meeting to a lunch date with a friend. Often, it has been sent to me along with 5 to 10 other people, all at once.