The first email message was sent in 1971. Over the more than four decades since, there has been plenty of time for the technology to evolve and for people to get used to it. Even so, on an almost daily basis I run into people who are doing it wrong, by which I mean making life unnecessarily difficult for themselves and inadvertently advertising facts that may be untrue or misleading.
In “” (11 April 2013), I talked about common misunderstandings about IMAP. Now I want to step back and look at email accounts and addresses more generally. The less-than-optimal approaches to email accounts I see so often are usually honest mistakes that result from not thinking through the way email works — and the way other people use email. Let me see if I can expose and clear up a few of these trouble spots.
What’s Your Email Address? I’d like to start with the most fundamental fact about your email experience: your email address. The famous 19th-century French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” Were he alive today, he might be able to make a similar judgment based on your email address. And whether you realize it or not, people do judge you by your address!
Now, I’m not merely saying that a Hotmail address is unfashionable. (It is unfashionable and always has been, but that’s neither here nor there.) I’m saying that one can often make an educated guess about a person’s technical ability, employment, and social savvy based on an email address — and those guesses (whether correct or not) may be unfavorable. For example, here are some stereotypes:
At the very bottom of the email address hierarchy are addresses from an ISP — that is, addresses ending in @att.net, @comcast.net, @cox.net, @earthlink.net, @anything.rr.com, @verizon.net, and so on. These betray perhaps the worst misconception, which is that you must accept what your ISP offers or that there are no better alternatives (there are always better alternatives to an ISP’s email). And they suggest that you’re stuck with your provider, because switching ISPs would mean giving up that email address. Even if you’ve been blissfully content with your ISP for years, the possibility always exists that a better, less-expensive, or otherwise more attractive option could appear in the future — or that your ISP could go out of business.
Addresses from Hotmail, Yahoo, Excite, Juno, and similar free email providers imply that you don’t take email very seriously, and may suggest a holdover from student days. And it’s distinctly worse if you have a computer-suggested name like firstname.lastname@example.org rather than, say, email@example.com (which at least tells me you’re an early adopter).
An AOL address tells me you were probably an AOL user back in the days of floppy disks and dial-up modems, and you kept the address just because it was too much bother to change it — or because you weren’t aware there were any alternatives. (More on changing addresses in a bit.) And by the way, if you’re still paying for AOL even though you don’t use them for dial-up access anymore, you’re wasting your money. Did you know you can?
Addresses tied to Apple’s services — those ending in @icloud.com, @me.com, and @mac.com — tell me you’re an Apple fan (which may be a positive or negative judgment, depending on who’s making it). But if that’s your primary or only address, it also suggests excessive dependence on Apple and a willingness to live with significant limitations when it comes to email.
A Gmail address suggests you’re a bit more sophisticated than the average email user, but not sophisticated enough to set up Gmail with your own domain name (or perhaps too poor — custom domain names used to be free but now require a paid subscription, at $50 per user per year). In particular, when I get business email from someone using a gmail.com address, I have to wonder what kind of employer can’t spring for a professional-looking domain name or why the sender is choosing to send from a personal address instead of a work address.
Addresses in a .edu domain are fine for students and teachers, but when someone continues using such an address years after graduating, I wonder if it’s due to unemployment. Of course, you may just be proud of your alma mater, but using such an address for non-school correspondence years later is a bit like continuing to wear a class ring in your 40s. It makes people wonder why you haven’t moved on.
If your address belongs to a business’s domain (@macworld.com, @apple.com, @wellsfargo.com, etc.), that tells me you’re employed, and it tells me something about your employer if not about your specific profession. That’s all fine, but if I receive personal email from an unambiguously business address, I wonder what’s going on. Perhaps the person does not have the sense to keep personal and business email separate, or is too lazy to get a personal account somewhere.
Of course, if you own your own business, that’s another story altogether, because there’s often no need to separate personal and business correspondence. You might get email from Adam’s firstname.lastname@example.org address that has nothing to do with TidBITS. That’s his domain, and he can do whatever he likes with it. So it’s a business domain that also functions as a personal domain, which brings us to the next category.
Email addresses in a personal domain — that is, one you own yourself, whether or not it involves your name — tell me that you’re a highly clueful person, with at least modest technical sophistication and a better-than-average awareness of How Things Work. I also know that you could switch email providers if you ever found that to be necessary. The nature of your personal domain might also tell me something. I chose the domain alt.cc — which I use for both personal and business correspondence — largely for its compactness (I once co-owned the domain name computergeeks.com, which was far too unwieldy), and I also own the domain joekissell.com (for obvious reasons). But if someone sends me email from an address ending in @misogynist.com, you know I’m going to raise an eyebrow as I reach for the Delete key.
Of course, you may have more than one address, and you may carefully choose which one you use based on the situation. I certainly do. I have every single type of address listed above (except .edu), but I use them selectively and with attention to the recipient, the occasion, and what impression I’m trying to convey.
If you regularly use one of the less-desirable email addresses, don’t worry, you’re not stuck with it forever! I’ll make some suggestions in a moment, but first I want to mention another problematic email practice.
A Couple’s Address? Really? Every so often I get an email from a couple who share a single email address. And while that’s adorable on some level, it’s also infuriating. JohnAndNancy@ThePetersonFamily.com sends me a message and it’s signed “John.” Later, I want to tell John something so I send a message to that address, but Nancy replies. I never know who’s going to be on the other end of the conversation.
Look, couples. I’m sure you’re the two closest people ever, that you share a brain, and that you have no secrets from each other. Good for you. But as surely as you each need your own driver’s license and passport, you need to have your own email addresses too. John and I might want to discuss a surprise party for Nancy, and Nancy might want to buy John a gift online without worrying that he’ll see the receipt. There are a thousand other reasons why it’s worthwhile for even the most committed and trusting couple to have separate addresses. If you want to have a family address especially for email both people need to see (such as bills), that’s fair enough, but please do your correspondents a favor and let them know your personal address too. (You do know email accounts are available for free, right?)
Accounts, Domains, and Providers -- Why do so many people use less-than-ideal email addresses? One reason is a misconception that an email account must be tied to a domain name, a provider, or both. But that isn’t so. Sure, you can get an email address from your ISP that, in turn, is tied to that ISP’s domain name, but in fact the elements of email account, domain name, and provider can (and generally should) be entirely distinct.
Let’s start with your ISP — the cable, DSL, satellite, dial-up, or cellular provider you use to access the Internet. Virtually every ISP also offers email accounts, and in some cases they’re set up for you automatically whether you want them or not. But no one is required to use these accounts! If it exists, you can simply ignore it. Go ahead and use Gmail, iCloud, or your favorite IMAP provider for email. The fact that Comcast provides your broadband connection doesn’t obligate you to use Comcast as an email provider. (You may want to at least set up your Comcast address to forward email to your regular address, just in case Comcast uses it to send you support messages or account notifications.)
The same goes for Web hosts. Maybe you have a hosting package with a company like or . These and countless other similar services usually include email hosting as part of the package, and there’s nothing wrong with using that if you like. But you’re not required to, and it’s often possible to get better and more reliable service from providers that specialize in email. Even if you do go with a Web hosting service, you can and should use a custom domain — not a domain belonging to the hosting provider.
But what about other email providers? If you use another service to host your email, isn’t your address tied to that service? Well, yes and no.
It’s true that if you have an aol.com address, only AOL can host it, and if you have a gmail.com address, only Google can host that. The same goes for all the providers — including iCloud, Yahoo, and Microsoft (outlook.com, live.com, and hotmail.com).
But you don’t have to live with an address in a generic domain. You can have a domain of your very own and then direct that email to your preferred email provider. Even better, you have the flexibility to change email providers if the need should arise. And in many cases, you can still keep your old address as an alternative if you’re concerned that changing it would be infeasible.
Ditch a Locked-In Provider -- If you want the control, flexibility, and favorable impressions that come from having your own domain name, you can make it happen. The exact steps depend on the choices you make, but I’ll outline the process here.
First, pick a domain registrar, find a domain name you like, and register it. I’ve had good results with and , but there are zillions of other registrars, too. These days, the going rate for domain names is about $15 per year — more if you want an unusual top-level domain, less on some bargain sites or if you’re transferring a domain from another registrar. The hardest part of registering a domain is finding a name that hasn’t been taken, but once you’ve done that, the rest of the process should take just minutes.
Next, pick an email provider. If you’re happy with your existing provider (whether iCloud, Gmail, or whatever) except for the fact that you don’t have your own domain name, the simplest approach is to log in to your account at your registrar’s Web site and configure it to forward all email for your domain to your existing address. That way you don’t have to change anything on the receiving side, although you may prefer to change the From address in your email client to reflect your new domain when you send outgoing mail. (This is often easier said than done, but I go into more detail about it, especially for Gmail, in “.”)
If you aren’t happy with your current provider, now’s the time to choose a new one. You’ll most likely pay for the service, and although prices vary widely, there are many options under $50 per year. I use the easyMail service from easyDNS, but lots of people swear by, Google Apps, and other providers. If you choose a new email provider, you’ll have to specify which address(es) you want mailboxes for in your new domain. You’ll also have to follow the provider’s instructions for setting up MX (mail exchange) records with your domain registrar, so incoming email is directed to the right server. That sounds complicated but it’s just a matter of filling in a few blanks on a form, and most email providers and registrars provide clear, simple instructions for doing so, like .
Now, if you’ve changed email providers, configure your email client (such as Apple Mail) on each device you use to log in to your new account with the username and password you chose.
Finally — assuming, again, that you’ve changed providers — forward mail from your old address to your new one. Most email providers and ISPs have a screen somewhere in the account settings area of their Web sites where you can type a forwarding address. By doing this, you ensure that mail sent to your old address will still reach you, even if your correspondents don’t update their address books. (It’s still a good idea to send out change-of-address notices and change important subscriptions and accounts, but forwarding email removes one of the barriers to switching providers.)
Although each provider is different, I’ll explain how this is done with iCloud and Gmail. To forward email from iCloud, log in to your account at. Click the gear icon in the lower-right corner and choose Preferences from the pop-up menu. On the General pane, select Forward My Email To, enter an address, and click Done. To forward email from Gmail, log in to your account at , click the gear icon in the upper-right corner and choose Settings from the pop-up menu. Click Forwarding and POP/IMAP. Click Add a Forwarding Address and follow the prompts to set it up. Then select Forward a Copy of Incoming Mail To and choose that address from the pop-up menu. From the second pop-up menu, choose what you want Gmail to do with the original message after forwarding it (my choice would be Delete Gmail’s Copy). Then click Save Changes.
Of course, if you were using an ISP’s email account and you change ISPs, your old account, including that forwarding setting, will disappear when you discontinue service. (Worse, someone else might get that username and start receiving your mail, which can be awkward.) So if you’re thinking of switching ISPs, try to wait a few months after you set up your new email address, and tell every single person who sends email to your old address that you’re using a new one, effective immediately. (And, be sure to send that message from your new account, so replies don’t go to your old one!)
Later on, if your email provider goes out of business, encounters security problems, raises prices, or does anything else objectionable — or if you simply find one you like better — you can set up an account with a new provider and change your MX records again (as in Step 2), change your client settings (as in Step 3), and transfer your saved email to the new provider. Your correspondents will never know the difference.
Further Advice -- Having an email address in a domain you control and hosting your email at a provider you like can solve numerous problems and perhaps even improve your image. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In my new book “,” I discuss many other ways to become a better correspondent, manage your Inbox, and make email a pleasure rather than a hassle. The book covers email etiquette, dealing with incoming and outgoing attachments, using signatures, providing the proper context in replies, judiciously using Cc and Bcc fields, and many other email tasks. I hope you find it helpful.