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how email works

Published 3/13/2024

Instead of physical addresses, we have email addresses. Just like every house has a street address to receive mail, email addresses serve as a unique virtual destination for your incoming messages. An email address, such as [email address removed]], combines a chosen username with the mail provider's domain name – it's your personal mailbox on the vast digital landscape of the internet.

Messages are typed, not handwritten on paper. Email replaces pen and ink with keyboards and screens. You can compose your message with the ease of typing, format it for clarity, and even include attachments like images or documents. This offers great flexibility compared to the limitations of a traditional letter.

Instead of mail carriers, we have email servers that move messages around the internet. Instead of a network of trucks and planes, emails rely on powerful computers called email servers. These servers work tirelessly behind the scenes. They receive outgoing messages, determine the correct destination, and work with other servers to relay the email along its digital journey until it securely reaches its intended recipient's inbox.

You Hit "Send"

  • Formatting Magic: When you click "send," your email app (Gmail, Outlook, etc.) doesn't just bundle up your text as is. It organizes your message according to specific email standards, adding information like the subject line, your address, and the recipient's address in a way that other email systems can understand.
  • Contacting Home Base: Your email app knows the address of your outgoing mail server (it's part of your email provider's settings). It essentially hands off the formatted message to this server, kicking off the journey.

Domain Lookup

  • Detective Work: Your outgoing mail server analyzes the recipient's email address – specifically the part after the "@" symbol. This tells it which company (Gmail, Yahoo, etc.) handles that person's inbox.
  • Finding the Right Server: Think of it like looking up the postal address of a specific company. Your mail server checks its internal directory to figure out the correct mail server for the recipient's domain.

Message Relay

  • Digital Hand-Off: Your outgoing server establishes a connection with the recipient's incoming mail server. It's like a virtual handshake between two computers.
  • Quick Background Checks: The servers don't just blindly accept the email. They check things like: Is the sender on any known spammer lists? Does the recipient's mailbox even exist? Is their inbox too full to accept new messages?
  • Transfer Time: If everything passes the checks, your message is officially transferred from your outgoing mail server to the recipient's incoming mail server.

Mailbox Delivery

  • Inbox Sorting: The recipient's incoming mail server acts like a virtual mailroom. It takes your message and places it securely into their designated inbox.
  • Ready for Viewing: The email now sits in the recipient's inbox, but they won't see it until they open their email client (Gmail, Outlook, etc.). When they do, their email app fetches any new messages, including yours, from the server and displays them for reading.

Protocols: SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) is the rulebook for communication between mail servers.

  • A Shared Language: Think of SMTP as the language mail servers speak to each other. It's a set of standard commands and procedures for the exchange of email messages. By adhering to SMTP, mail servers across different providers and systems can seamlessly work together.
  • What It Governs: SMTP dictates things like how to start a communication session, format parts of the email (like sender, recipient, subject), and the actual transfer of your message's content.

Not Instant: While email feels fast, it's not truly instant. There can be slight delays during any step of the journey.

  • Behind the Illusion of Speed: Even though emails often arrive within seconds, there's a surprising amount going on. Each step (server lookups, security checks, message transfer) takes a tiny amount of time.
  • Factors Causing Delays: Things like heavy internet traffic, temporary server glitches, or the size of your message all can add milliseconds to the delivery time. While usually not noticeable, these delays make a true 'real-time' email conversation impossible.

Spam Filters: Mail servers have complex systems to analyze incoming email and try to block spam before it hits inboxes.

  • Spam = Digital Pollution: Spam is the scourge of email. Mail servers are the first line of defense, using advanced algorithms to detect suspicious patterns.
  • What They Look For: Obvious tells like all-caps subject lines, excessive links, or sending from shady domains are red flags. Spam filters also learn over time, adapting to new tactics used by spammers.
  • False Positives: Sadly, sometimes legitimate emails get caught in spam filters. This is why it's important to occasionally check your spam folder in case a real message got wrongly flagged.