Internet e-mail has joys, but an occasional pitfall


October 24, 1994|By MICHAEL HIMOWITZ

A lot of my friends are getting onto the Internet today -- through Internet service providers, the major on-line services, or even through their local libraries.

While they realize that access to the Net gives them the power to talk electronically with millions of people around the world, they're confused often about the Internet's three major communication schemes -- e-mail, mailing lists and news groups.

E-mail is by far the greatest attraction of the Internet. It lets you send messages to anyone, anywhere else on the Net, simply by putting their Internet address in the "To:" section of whatever program is handling your mail service.

Millions of users have discovered the joys and occasional pitfalls of e-mail. Some think it may well resurrect the art of correspondence, which disappeared with the onset of cheap long-distance phone service. E-mail has a major advantage over the Postal Service (known as snail-mail) in that it's virtually instantaneous. In most cases, when you post an e-mail message, it will arrive on your correspondent's host computer within minutes, or at most a few hours. The next time he or she logs on, the message is waiting.

Electronic mail is particularly popular among families with college students. Mom and dad use America Online or one of the other services, and the kids have accounts on their college computer system. Thanks to the Internet, they can exchange mail. It's an easy way to keep in touch without worrying about time schedules or time zones, and more than a few parents say their children are apt to be more communicative in electronic writing than they are on the phone.

E-mail is also relatively cheap. Basic mail accounts are available for as little as $15 a month from commercial Internet access providers. So-called "freenet" systems in some cities will give you a basic e-mail account for a small donation, such as $50 a year.

E-mail is part of the package when you subscribe to any large on-line service, such as CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy, HTC GEnie or Delphi. Until recently, users of these services were generally limited to communicating with other subscribers of the same service.

Now, however, the services are all part of the Internet, and it's possible to send e-mail from one service to another and to any Internet address. Be aware, though, that some on-line services charge extra for e-mail messages beyond a fixed number per month, and some have fees for mail delivered from foreign systems over the Internet. Check with your service.

A cheaper way

If you expect to be a heavy Internet e-mail user, it might be cheaper to set up a basic e-mail account with a commercial Internet provider.

One-on-one mail is just fine for handling business, but the greatest impact of Internet communication may well be its ability to let its users organize into groups with various interests. Whether you're interested in politics, religion, gardening, heavy metal, computer programming, windsurfing or classical music, there's undoubtedly a group of like-minded people out there, ready to share information or arguments.

There are two kinds of groups on the Internet, mailing lists and news groups. Because the number of lists and groups changes daily, it's hard to say how many there are. A good guess is anywhere between 7,000 and 12,000. Some are long-standing, others spring up for a month or two, then dissolve for lack of interest.

Some lists and groups are moderated, which means there's a head honcho who decides whether to pass on your message. Others are pure free-for-alls that post anything and everything.

Mailing lists are just what they sound like. They're lists of people with similar interests who send e-mail to one another.

To join a group, you send e-mail with a "subscribe" message to the person or computer that manages the mailing list. After that, a copy of any message you send to the group is automatically passed on to everyone else in the group, and you get mail from everyone else.

Mailing lists have one major disadvantage. You tend to get a lot of mail.

For example, I subscribe to two lists for journalists. One deals with computer-assisted reporting, the other with on-line news operations. Between them, I get anywhere from 45 to 70 messages a day. Although I enjoy taking part in the discussions and get critical information that would be hard to come by elsewhere, I do have to spend some time sorting through the mail every day.

If you're using a commercial on-line services that charges extra for messages beyond a monthly maximum, or for Internet mail you receive, subscribing to an active mailing list can be a ticket to the poorhouse. So be careful.

Usenet news groups are the other major form of mass communication on the Net. These are more like electronic bulletin boards, organized by subjects. When you post a message to the news group, it becomes available to everyone in the group. But unlike mailing lists, news groups don't fill up your mailbox. You have to decide to look at the group's postings.

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