Wednesday, June 17, 1998 Published at 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
What does your e-mail address say about you?
Britain's infamous class system has for generation after generation resulted in people looking up at - or down on - the rest of society.
But in the new - technological - world everything is different. Right? Not quite.
Among Internet veterans there is a clear, if seldom expressed, status ranking based on the e-mail address you have.
Your e-mail address is not just a string of nearly meaningless letters - to the Net cognoscenti it tells a story.
It can, of course, indicate what country you are from and the company, university or organisation you work in.
Prejudices based on these 'real world' factors are one thing. But there are some Net presumptions that are harder to fathom. For instance:
Looked up at
Looked down on
AOL produces flood of 'newbies'
The 12m people who get their Internet access through AOL- the largest single internet provider - have been the subject of widespread discrimination ever since its users gained access to newsgroups in March 1994.
Before that time, Net users tended to be academics and engineers, and most had learned the customs and conventions of online behaviour which had grown over the years.
When AOL 'threw the switch' and allowed its users onto the Net, this produced a flood of new arrivals. They came from (in most cases) less-technical backgrounds, asked what seemed to hardened Net users to be dumb questions - and all of them were identified with aol.com.
They attracted a storm of criticism, which has continued to this day. There is even a newsgroup, alt.aol-sucks, dedicated to criticising the online giant and its members.
Cyber-prejudice alive and well
According to net.wars, a book about Internet culture, one Internet user demonstrated the extent of 'cyber-prejudice' in late 1995.
She posted two blank messages to an unfamilar internet discussion group - the first from an 'ordinary' internet provider address, the second from her AOL address.
After the first she received help and advice because of her 'mistake' - but when the error came from an AOL user, the same recipients responded with abuse.
According to Mary Branscombe, a producer at AOL UK, "most of the stigma has now gone".
She said: "There are a lot more people with a non-technical background on the Net now, and they are coming from a variety of different origins, not just online."
A virtual solution to a virtual problem
Nowadays, it is possible to disguise your Internet identity by using a web-based e-mail service such as hotmail.com or rocketmail.com.
One company, iName, even offers a choice of e-mail address "identities" - for a price.
For $14.95 a year, you can send and receive e-mails as "firstname.lastname@example.org", "doctor.com" or one of hundreds of other names.
But e-mail-through-the-web services are coming under increasing fire because their anonymity makes them a haven for bulk e-mail marketers - 'spammers'.
Many e-mail users we contacted automatically filter out e-mails from these providers and from AOL because of the amount of spam they receive.
If you've got more money and time, for as little as £45 for a .COM address or £20 for a .co.uk address - the first two years' rental - you can register your own (at risk of being thought vain).
British company Net Names, which registers Internet names for companies, says they often don't know it is possible for a company to have its own name on the net instead of 'piggy-backing' on another organisation's address.
"Why advertise someone else's product in your e-mail?" says marketing manager Stephen Miller.
"The most important business asset is your name. So your e-mail should project your name as strongly as possible."
Britain's classless e-society
Simon Bisson, a UK-based consultant and Internet veteran, said that a "virgin.net" address is looked down on by some Net users because ".net" addresses should technically only be given to members of staff of Internet providers.
And one Internet user wrote us to say he'd probably assume an aol.com user "knows next to nothing," while someone with an account with CIX - one of the UK's oldest Internet Service Providers - would be "fairly technically proficient, and understand long words".
But there are no prizes for guessing what his ISP is.