Electronic mail (e-mail) is a means of sending messages from a computer to one or more other computers. Messages are sent via a telephone line and delivered to the recipient within a few seconds, minutes, or hours, to over a day, depending on the service used and the reliability of the telephone connection. E-mail is a relatively cheap and increasingly popular way of communicating among individuals and organisations worldwide.
Different types of connections carry different charges and advantages. A dial-up connection is the most basic; usually, you are charged for the use of the telephone line for the duration of your ‘session’ on the Internet, plus connection charges and/or a standard monthly fee. Alternatively, if you live in an area with a good telecommunications infrastructure, you may be able to obtain a broadband (also called DSL (Digital Subscriber Line)) connection. Broadband may be quite expensive, but provides an ‘always on’, much faster Internet connection and may be more cost-effective if the Internet is used frequently.
An e-mail message can be a simple text-based message written directly in e-mail software, or it can include an ‘attachment’ consisting of a word-processed document, spreadsheet, database or graphics file, or even a software program. A simple text e-mail can be read by any e-mail software. However, an attachment can only be read by the same software in which it was prepared. The recipient therefore needs to have the relevant word-processing, spreadsheet, database or other software to read attached documents. See also ‘Portable Document Format (PDF)’, in Section 6.3.
TIP: Sending attachments
If you are not sure which word-processing software is used by the person who is receiving the attachment, save the document as a rich text format (RTF) file, or a text file (TXT) before sending it. These files can be read by any word-processing software. A text file only includes the text of the document with no formatting. A rich text format file keeps basic formatting such as bold and underline
E-mail addresses indicate the user, service provider, type of organisation and (usually) the country in which the user is located. A typical e-mail address is Healthlink Worldwide’s address:
info = the identifier or user name (this could be the name of an individual, a department or a service)
@ = pronounced ‘at’
healthlink.org.uk = the domain name or organisation name
org = shows that it is an organisation (ac = academic institution, co = company, gov = government)
uk = country in which the organisation is registered
Each . is pronounced ‘dot’, so the above e-mail address would be pronounced:
info at healthlink dot org dot uk
Advantages of email
- fast and relatively cheap
- easy to send the same message to more than one person
- text sent via e-mail can be copied into other documents
- does not require a separate telephone line (although the fax or telephone cannot be used at the same time as sending e-mail)
- does not require a separate computer
- enables faxes to be sent more cheaply than via a fax machine
- enables multimedia messages (containing sound and movement) to be sent if the computer has multimedia facilities
- makes networking easier.
Disadvantages of email
- requires computer skills
- requires Internet access and associated fees
- requires training to use the e-mail system
- software can only be used in a few languages
- legal status of messages has not yet been tested in some countries.
6.6.1 Using e-mail
As well as sending individual messages, e-mail has a wide range of uses, including sending faxes, participating in electronic conferences or mailing list discussions, receiving newsletters and bulletins, and joining networks.
E-mail can be used to send and receive faxes directly, instead of printing them out and sending them via a fax machine. It is cheaper to send faxes by e-mail, because the messages travel faster, and the telephone charge is for a local call only. This facility requires a fax modem. It is also important to check that the Internet service provider can support sending fax over e-mail.
An electronic conference may also be known as a conference list, discussion list, discussion group, or discussion forum.
Electronic conferences allow a variety of people to communicate with each other to discuss issues, ask questions and exchange ideas and experiences. An e-mail sent to the conference address is automatically distributed to all its members. Some larger conferences have a 'moderator' who sees all messages before they are sent out to the member list, to ensure that they are relevant and appropriate to the conference.
A conference may focus on a subject area of interest, such as the prevention and control of HIV/AIDS; or it might have a geographic focus, such as library services in Asia or public health in India; or it might be aimed at those with a similar job, such as health managers. A number of conference lists are available for library and information staff, such as the regional lists, Aflib, Asialib, Paclib and lists specifically for health information staff, such as AhilaNet and Medlib.
Conferences are often open to anyone interested in the topic. They can be subscribed to automatically by sending an e-mail message to the conference host. Details on how to subscribe to these electronic conferences are given in Section 6.9.4.
TIP: Handling messages
Some electronic conferences and discussion groups are very active and you may receive a number of messages each day, some of which may not be of interest. You could check with your service provider or other NGOs before subscribing. If you are going to be away from your e-mail for some time, you can unsubscribe for that period to avoid a large build-up of messages. Some very active discussion lists, eg AFRO-NETS, offer subscribers a weekly summary of messages.
Remember to keep the instructions on how to ‘unsubscribe’. These are usually included in the welcome message when you first join.
Electronic mailing lists
The main aim of electronic mailing lists is to improve e-mail communication between a group of people working together. Electronic mailing lists may be used for short-term action planning or discussion before a meeting, or for ongoing general information sharing and discussion on a particular topic.
For example, Healthlink Worldwide has set up a mailing list for members of its Middle East Programme’s regional management group. Members are located in different countries. They use the mailing list conference to plan meetings and newsletter editions. This ‘closed’ mailing list (open only to regional management group members) has an agreed purpose and a ‘moderator’, who is responsible for ensuring that it is used for its intended purpose, and for keeping a record of messages sent.
TIP: Setting up an electronic mailing list
You can set up your own electronic mailing list as long as you have an Internet service provider that offers this service (most do). A useful and easy-to-follow guide on how to plan, set up and use a mailing list, From workplace to workspace: using email lists to work together, is available on the Internet at http://www.idrc.ca/books/848.html or in print (see Further Reading section).
Bellanet (http://www.bellanet.org) is a Canada-based NGO that supplies services, advice and training to meet the needs of international development research communities and other development networks whose members are separated by geography. Bellanet provides advice and support to a range of partners on how to most effectively use web- and email-based tools for group dialogues and efforts toward the sharing of information.
Electronic newsletters and bulletins
Newsletters and bulletins are becoming increasingly available over e-mail as well as, or instead of, in print format. They are distributed in text-based format (without pictures or illustrations), and are often available free of charge. Some publishers prefer to distribute their publications over e-mail to speed up delivery times and to save on print and mailing costs, but offer the print version to those who cannot or do not want to receive the electronic version. Some publications are available electronically only, such as HNPFlash (for details see http://www.worldbank.org/hnpflash) and WOUGNET Update Newsletter (see http://www.wougnet.org).
The advantage of receiving newsletters and bulletins over e-mail is that selected articles or whole issues can be passed on directly by e-mail to others who may be interested. In addition, sections can be printed, copied to a word processor and adapted or reproduced for other materials.
It is worth considering how to store electronic newsletters and bulletins for reference by others. Key issues or articles could be printed and filed in the resource centre. They could also be stored in their own folder on your computer or on a disk.
Many journals and newsletters are also available on the Internet for those with full Internet access (see Section 6.7.4). Usually, you can sign up for regular notification of the latest issue and website address via e-mail, which will link to an electronic (html or PDF) version of the document on the publisher’s website.
There are a number of networks in developing countries, which bring together people and organisations with common interests and a commitment to information sharing. By offering training, technical support and services such as e-mail, electronic conferences and discussion lists, and databases, these networks facilitate communication on issues such as peace, environment, social justice, international development, education and health.
Examples of electronic networks include SANGONeT (South Africa), PSDN (Philippines), IndiaLink (India), Alternex (Brazil), Association for Progressive Communications (APC), Pactok, and SatelLife’s HealthNet network. The American Association for the Advancement of Science website provides links to several good sources of information on electronic networking and connectivity issues.