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10/16/2009
06:14 PM
Stowe Boyd
Stowe Boyd
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The Death Of Email: What Does Dead Mean, Exactly?

There has been a great deal of discussion about email recently. I think the proximate cause is the arrival of Google Wave, which is being heralded like the coronation of royalty. (I will leave a review of Wave to another venue, since the introductory video from Google is 85 minutes.) But the rise of tools like Twitter have also raised questions about the future state for email.A few years ago, in 2004 or 2005, I was chairing a panel at Supernova on 'The Future Of Email'. JP Rangaswami was there, as was a fellow from some email spam prevention company. I got in hot water immediately buy making the following arguments:

  1. Email is not really well-designed relative to its ostensible purpose -- which is to support communication between people that are well-known to each other, and have an on-going relationship, for example working on a project together within a company.
  2. Email is very good at things that seem like spam: sending unsolicited and perhaps unwanted messages to people that are unknonw aside from their email address. The basic protocols of store-and-forwarding of email means that email can be filtered into spam folders, but it basically has to be delivered.
  3. The adoption of instant messaging and chat products in business have been shown to decrease email and telephone communications by a sizable extent, sometimes as much as 30% or more. This suggest that features of these technologies -- like persistent chat rooms, and instant message presence -- offer real benefits that can't be supported by telephone and email communication.
  4. Lastly, there is a strong generational gradient away from email: teenagers and young people dislike it, and view it as a corporate tool that they only use to talk to companies, and never with their friends, with whom they are most likely to text or talk on the phone.
I suggested that the logical outcome of these trends was the eventual death of email, which would like follow some sort of S-curve, as people began to defect from it, and transition onto existing and as-then-unknown alternatives.I was almost tarred and feathered. People were literally yelling at me, saying I was an idiot. Esther Dyson shook her head at me from the front row. Amy Wohl asked if I was unaware that email was the killer app of the Internet. Someone demanded his money back for the confernece, since he was interested in hearing of the future of email, not about some future in which email was no more.But, now years later, with the aging of the boomers who consider email as an integral and eternal part of the web, the increased use of text, instant messaging, VoIP, and now microstreaming solutions like Twitter, my five year old pronouncements look like something from the sunday supplement of a newspaper. Like the recent piece in the WSJ by Jessica Vascellaro called Why Email No Longer Rules....Vascellaro gets off to a good start:
Email has had a good run as king of communications. But its reign is over.In its place, a new generation of services is starting to take hold-services like Twitter and Facebook and countless others vying for a piece of the new world. And just as email did more than a decade ago, this shift promises to profoundly rewrite the way we communicate-in ways we can only begin to imagine.We all still use email, of course. But email was better suited to the way we used to use the Internet-logging off and on, checking our messages in bursts. Now, we are always connected, whether we are sitting at a desk or on a mobile phone. The always-on connection, in turn, has created a host of new ways to communicate that are much faster than email, and more fun.
But she stumbles and falls when she reverts to industrial era notions about personal productivity as the rationale for why we select different media to communicate, with the unexamined premise that we always choose what we do in order to be more productive:
You can argue that because we have more ways to send more messages, we spend more time doing it. That may make us more productive, but it may not. We get lured into wasting time, telling our bosses we are looking into something, instead of just doing it, for example. And we will no doubt waste time communicating stuff that isn't meaningful, maybe at the expense of more meaningful communication. Such as, say, talking to somebody in person.
So, five years after a time when talking about the death of email was seen as a subversive act, something like burning the flag, Vascellano fails to actually connect the real dots here. She holds to an old yardstick, where productivity trumps everything. However, in the new world of social tools connecting us, being connected to others trumps everything.So we are slowly starving email, relegating it to a shorter and short list of appropriate uses. In time, it will fall off the edge, like fax is now that we can scan and send attachments more easily than using dedicated fax machines. We will find that email will be left with a short list of uses, like monthly mailing from the bank, or travel intineraries from Expedia. These relative impersonal communications with companies will be the final resting ground for email, and then, even that will wink out when a better metaphor for social interaction with companies becomes dominant.And I doubt that we will miss it when it's gone, either.

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