As I started to write some of the material destined for future articles here
on Taming Email, it became apparent to me
that I was making a lot of assumptions about how email is organized and
structured. In order to avoid losing folks from the very start, a few
definitions of some of the basic concepts of email might well be in order, both
for now, and for reference later.
Based on the kinds of questions I get out on Ask Leo!, it’s clear that the differences between
email domains, accounts and addresses is one area of common confusion. Since
I’ll be relying heavily on some of those differences as I lay out my
recommending “taming tricks”, it’s worth a few minutes to go over exactly what
A lot of people understand domains, but the difference between an email
address and an email account? Not so much.
One small caveat: I’m going to oversimplify a little, and perhaps some will
disagree with the details, but for the purposes of discussion here on Taming
Email these are my basic definitions for these terms. As with just about
anything on the internet or computers, things could of course be made
excruciatingly more complex. I’ll try not to do that.
As I said, you probably know what a domain is. “tamingemail.com” is a
domain. As is “hotmail.com”, “microsoft.com” and “mac.com”. Those represent
business or organizations on the internet. In almost all cases, they happen to
have a web site associated with them, though it’s not technically required.
Similarly, they all probably process email, though again, that too is not
By processing email, I mean that email directed at some address “@” one of
those domains is handled by some mail server or servers specifically for that
domain. In fact, all the “outside world” really knows is that “mail for this
domain is is handled by that server”. For example as I write this mail for
“tamingemail.com” is handled by “mail2.pugetsoundsoftware.com”. When mail is
sent to any address @tamingemail.com, it actually gets routed to
mail2.pugetsoundsoftware.com, where it’s then processed and routed to the
correct individual recipient.
A key factoid is that any domain can have a virtually unlimited number of
email addresses and accounts associated with it. Think of all the possible
email names to put in front of the “@” in “@tamingemail.com” – as the owner of
that domain, I could choose to define any of them.
For purposes of my discussions, an account is a mailbox. Seems simple, yes?
And, in many cases it is, because in many cases there’s a one-to-one
relationship between an email address and a mailbox.
I’ll put it another way – an account is use to read a mailbox. In
order to download or read email in a mailbox, you must supply your account name
In many cases, the email address actually identifies the account. For
example a Hotmail email account is completely identified by the
corresponding Hotmail email address. The upshot is that if you want to
change your Hotmail email address, you must do so by creating a new Hotmail
Not all accounts are identified by their email address. A good example was
my old Verizon account: the “User Name” information was some cryptic string
like “res1234”, which isn’t an email address at all. But the email address that
corresponded to that account was more as expected: something @verizon.net.
In my email program’s account configuration, I had to specify that cryptic
name as my “User Name” (with its password, of course), and then separately when
it asked for my email address I would put in my @verizon.net address.
It was still a one-to-one relationship, though. One user name, one mailbox,
and one email address that landed in that mailbox.
An email address is name for a mailbox. It is not the mailbox –
it’s simply a name for that mailbox.
To put it another way – an email address is simply a way to put email
into a mailbox. An email address simply tells the mail system, right
down to the mail server for the specific domain, which mailbox into which the
mail should be delivered.
So why is the distinction so important?
Because a mailbox (account) can have many, many names (addresses).
Whether it actually can in some specific instance is up to the
email provider. As we’ve already seen, Hotmail is an example where you cannot –
one email address implies one account, and vice versa.
So we’ve seen that accounts and addresses are related, and that they “meet
at the mailbox”. Addresses put things into the mail box, and accounts are how
you take things out. How does that translate into actual usage?
Well, depending on your email provider, you can often define several
different email addresses that all deliver into the same mailbox. For example
it’s not at all uncommon for the various standard email addresses like
“abuse@”, “postmaster@”, “webmaster@” and so on, all to deliver into the same
mailbox – the mailbox of the administrator for that mail server. I actually go
so far as to have many email addresses on my “ask-leo.com” domain, but
not one account. All the email on that domain is delivered to accounts on one
of my other domains.
Mailboxes, identified by you account are what you access or
download. That means that regardless of how the email got there, regardless of
what address was used to get it to that mailbox, when you download
email from that account, all the emails in that mailbox are part of the
That has interesting implications. That means you can control what email
gets downloaded when by perhaps having more than one account. You can
also perhaps segregate email based on what address it was sent to,
regardless of when you download it.
In fact, both will be key components of some of our tricks to taming
Domains, accounts and addresses still a little unclear?
Time for a metaphor.
Imagine a large office building. This office building has hundreds of
employees, and deep, down in the basement is a mail room for the tons of paper
mail delivered by the postal service every day.
The “domain” is the address of the building. The postal service simply
delivers all mail for anyone in that building to the back
door, where they drop it in a lump. That’s the equivalent of the internet
handing off all email for that domain to the mail server for that domain.
The “mail server” is the team of hard working mail clerks that pick up the
mail from the back door, carry it down to the basement, and start sorting it
into its respective destinations.
Each employee has a physical mailbox – that’s their “account” in which they
get their paper mail. The mail clerks examine each piece of mail, and shove it
in to the corresponding mailbox.
However, each employee might go by several names … each of those is an
“address”. I might go by “Leo”, “Leonard” or “Chief Technology Officer”, and
the mail clerks know to deliver all the email addressed to any of those to my
And finally, there’s the guy that takes the email out of your box and
delivers it to your desk. He’s your “mail program”.
I could even extend the metaphor a little further … perhaps the mail
clerks recognize and automatically throw away junk mail – that’d be your spam
filter. Mail that the clerks don’t know how to handle, so they mark it
“unknown; return to sender”? That’s a “bounce”.
And so on.
As I said, these are somewhat fundamental concepts that we’ll be referencing
as we get your email under control.
Think of them as the whip and chair you’re holding as you tame the beast
that is email.