When a Hollywood blockbuster is hyped by a poster that shows its two stars gazing adoringly into their laptop screens rather than each other's eyes, you know e-mail has arrived. You've Got Mail (starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks) is about falling in love the modern way - a courtship conducted over the Internet, with words of love delivered through the modem rather than the letterbox. Stuff and nonsense? Not at all. A growing number of couples are tying the knot having spent endless hours exchanging sweet nothings on-line.
But even for those of us who rely on more traditional methods of wooing Mr or Ms Right, the new forms of electronic communication - of which e-mail is by far the most popular - are having a dramatic effect on life.
E-mail, like the Internet, has been around for decades, but it has really taken off only in the past few years. The number of homes with a computer continues to rise, and an escalating number of workers have e-mail and Internet access.
An estimated 50 million people worldwide use Hotmail alone, the service that allows users to send and receive e-mail messages from any computer with Internet access rather than just the one at home or work. And if you were to ask the average e-mail user if he or she could survive without it, chances are most would say no. It is addictive.
Even though regular users may greet the beep that signals a new message with the same degree of anticipation they used to reserve for the postman's knock, e-mail is not a letter. Malcolm Moss, an advisory teacher with the Tesco SchoolNet 2000 project, believes e-mail's lack of formality means users feel comfortable jotting down just a few words. The other big advantage is speed - even sending a fax cannot beat clicking on the "send" icon - and, of course, it leaves the regular post standing.
Mr Moss also likes the way e-mail allows him to reply when it suits him, unlike the phone call that demands an immediate response. "It's a way of organising your life in terms of communication," he says. "I couldn't do the job I'm doing at the moment without it."
Malcolm Moss is one of the lucky ones - a teacher with his own computer. Unlike most professionals these days, most teachers still do not have a PC, although a Government scheme later this year will offer them some sort of subsidy to buy one.
Beverly Revie is another lucky teacher. Deputy head of St Nicolas Church of England School in Paplow, Buckinghamshire, she was one of about 10,000 to be given a laptop computer just over a year ago under a Government-funded initiative.
Around 300 teachers in the scheme regularly use e-mail to contribute to work-related discussions, but Ms Revie says they also use the technology to converse privately. She finds the network a great form of support - "what's evolved is a cyber-community" - and has met up with some of those who live nearby. They also use ICQ - a Web-based, real-time chat program - to talk to each other instantaneously.
While the traditional image of the Internet user is of a sad and lonely social inadequate, Ms Revie's experience disproves the point. "People who use it are usually quite gregarious with good interpersonal skills," she says. "The more active life they have, the more they use e-mail."
Mark Griffiths, reader in psychology at Nottingham Trent University, believes communications technology has fundamentally changed our lives - for the better. He says the argument that it is in some way dangerous is no different to the cries of alarm that greeted the arrival of radio or television.
Addiction to electronic communication is a topic he has researched extensively, and although he says it is a genuine problem, the number of people affected remains small. However, the European Union is considering a policy which would make counselling available to those who use the Internet for more than four hours a day.
E-mail might be blurring the line between written and verbal communication, and it can take much longer to sit down and write a message than pick up the phone, although that could all change in the near future as speech recognition programs become more sophisticated. And although few people "need" to be on-line in the same sense that they need to eat, drink or sleep, the day when swapping e-mail addresses is as routine as exchanging phone numbers is surely just around the corner.
* Remember your netiquette
Chatting on the Internet allows you to have a conversation with one or more computer users in real time, unlike e-mail, which is one-to-one and where you have to wait for the recipient of your message to reply.
You need a name, so make sure your "nick" or "handle" is creative and a bit silly. If you are interested in a particular topic try to come up with a subtle choice, so that only a select few will know what it means and will message you. Don't be rude, crude, vile or downright obnoxious.
To make yourself known on a channel, you can send a general greeting, but if this doesn't work, message other users individually. Remember not to SHOUT - capital letters mean you are raising your voice.
Abbreviation is the name of the game. Why type out a whole phrase when three letters will suffice? Some of the more common are:
* BRB: be right back
* Hamp;K: hugs and kisses
* IC: I see
* LOL: laugh out loud
* L8R: later
* OIC: oh, I see
* TTFN: ta ta for now
And if you want to describe an action put the verb between asterisks - *hug*, for example. A smile is :-) Don't rise to the bait if someone starts insulting you. The best defence is to ignore the offender, but if you're feeling witty you can try humorous insults back. If someone disagrees with your opinion, politely ask them why. If you are in the wrong, be gracious and admit it, or you might find yourself the target of a "flame"- abuse or an insult.
Observe some common courtesies. Be kind to newcomers - most will be unsure of the etiquette, so be welcoming and helpful. Try not to take up a lot of space with your messages - you have to respect other chatters if you use a chat room regularly.
* To download the IRC chat program, go to www.mirc.co.ukget.html
* If you prefer to chat via the World Wide Web, go to www.icq.com
* ICQ is clever as it can tell you when friends log on to the Net.
* Chat Etiquette: the Dos and Don'ts of on-line conversation: www.geocities. comSouthBeachBreakers5257Chatet.htm
* GETTING THE MESSAGE
There are two ways to get an e-mail address. If you have a computer at home, you can sign up with an Internet Service Provider (ISP) - some, such as Demon (www.demon.net), charge a monthly fee, but others, such as Freeserve (www.freeserve.co.uk) or The TES's Learnfree (www.learnfree.co.uk) cost nothing. With this method, you dial into your ISP using the computer's modem to send and receive messages and you can usually do so only from your own machine.
If you do not have your own PC at home or work but have access to one with Internet access, you can get a personal, private address with one of the many free web-based e-mail sites. You can then access your e-mail from any computer in the world connected to the net. The main disadvantage is having to be on-line (and paying for a telephone call) to read and write messages. Despite privacy policies, be aware that things can go wrong, as Microsoft's Hotmail discovered last month, when hackers broke into its system. Some popular e-mail websites include: