Is email dead? No, but it’s not well

by Mathew on November 15, 2007 · 10 comments

After I wrote a post yesterday about Google and Yahoo’s plans to turn email into a Facebook-style social hub, someone commented and included a link to a Slate piece about the “death of email.” As Zoli Erdos notes in his response, this kind of thing comes along pretty regularly — email is dead, the kids don’t use it any more, etc.

My point on the Yahoo/Google post was that younger people barely use email at all, and if those two giants want to jump on the social-networking bandwagon, maybe email isn’t the best approach. I’ve learned through hard experience that if I want to send a link or a quick question to either of my teenaged daughters, email barely works at all — they hardly ever check it, and so I’m reduced to saying “Did you get that link I sent you?” at which point they go and check it, which kind of defeats the purpose.

Obviously, my daughters won’t be teenagers forever. Eventually they will (I sincerely hope) get jobs and become productive members of society — at which point they will no doubt be forced to deal with the massive time-sucking drain on productivity that we call email. They too will get to enjoy the main feature of email: what some like to call an “audit trail” and others like to describe as “butt-covering.”

Let’s face it: by CC’ing everyone under the sun, sending long messages late on a Friday afternoon, including miscellaneous attachments for no reason and otherwise gumming things up, certain people achieve the appearance of work without actually having to do any — and then when someone calls them on it they can say “but didn’t you get my email?” If Google or someone else can fix that, then more power to them.

Email may not be dead, but it certainly isn’t looking too healthy, and hasn’t for years. As Zoli points out, the best approach is not to replace email with other things like IM or Facebook messages — which have their own flaws — but to make use of as many different methods as possible, depending on the situation. In some cases a wiki makes more sense, or a Google document, or a live chat, or (God forbid) even a phone call.

My friend Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 says that he thinks the whole “email is dead” meme is ridiculous.

  • http://www.davewalkerdesign.com/blog/ Dave Walker

    I’m not sure dead, or even unhealthy, is the right term. Unglamourous, maybe.

    Email is a tool, and every tool has its purpose. You (probably) wouldn’t try driving nails with your saw, and email has its own strengths and weaknesses.

    Over the last couple of years we’ve seen a wide range of new tools added to our communication toolbox and suddenly email has lost its lustre. I doubt it’s even unhealthy – it has just been relegated to its rightful place as just another communication tool.

  • http://joeduck.com Joe Duck

    by CC’ing everyone under the sun, sending long messages late on a Friday afternoon, including miscellaneous attachments for no reason and otherwise gumming things up, certain people achieve the appearance of work without actually having to do any

    EXCUSE ME MATT, but now that you’ve let the cat out of the bag how am I going to maintain appearances?

    —–
    I wonder how much of the problem is from spam and a related failure of “white listing” systems such that you only get mail from trusted folks. I really like the audit trail for biz items and don’t want to give that up. If Yahoo and Google do this right, they’ll find ways for people to prioritize and categorize email and people quickly and in line with real life. That really would be a great social network for me.

  • http://www.messagingtimes.com Tom O’Leary

    Electronic mail will be sent, albeit across a growing number of platforms (to include mobile and smartphone devices) for many years to come.

    Let us not forget that all of these young kids each have two older parents who will continue to use email as their primary means of communication.

    Email is evolving along with other technologies.

    Earlier reports showed that young people still use email for business or professional communication, though they are using IM and other microcontent formats for personal communication.

    “Online, teens and Generation Ys behave differently than the old timers. They are more mobile, more social and more networked than the boomers ever will be. But they still email. According to Christopher Salazar, email for the younger generations is used primarily for business-related messages and professional relationships outside of their social circle. He and his posse offer their attention to different channels for everything else, to include SMS, social networks and instant messaging.”

    For more information, read:

    Generation Y Email?
    http://www.messagingtimes.com/blog/?p=1053

  • http://spap-oop.blogspot.com tish grier

    just love the way you called email a “massive time-sucking drain on productivity.”

    But, quite frankly, I (and lots of other people) have found social networking sites like Facebook to also be massive time-sucking drains on creativity…

    So, perhaps which time-sucking drain we choose to use the most might have to do with whether or not we have to have that “audit trail.” The “audit trail” is often what differentiates business communications from adolescent, friend-to-friend or message from mom-and-dad communications. We can ignore Mom and Dad, but we can’t necessarily ignore the hostile co-worker or peevish, control-freak boss…

    And the idea of my email becoming a social networking site is pretty horrific–no refuge, no work done for sure!

  • http://www.storyofmylife.com/ Antje Wilsch

    just wait until they will get jobs (well we hope) and yes they will have to use email and, god forbid, letters/phone. How can one do business on twitter, social networks, text and IM? There is a time and a place for all of these. Kids have no reason to send email b/c they are instantly connected and know each other. But the same personal rules of engagement don't apply in a professional setting. Just give them a few years. They said email would be the post office killer and I still get daily mail from the post office.

  • Antje Wilsch

    just wait until they will get jobs (well we hope) and yes they will have to use email and, god forbid, letters/phone. How can one do business on twitter, social networks, text and IM? There is a time and a place for all of these. Kids have no reason to send email b/c they are instantly connected and know each other. But the same personal rules of engagement don’t apply in a professional setting. Just give them a few years. They said email would be the post office killer and I still get daily mail from the post office.

  • http://rarepattern.com Laura

    Silliness! Email is doing better than it was not so long ago. What was killing email was spam, and spam fighting is getting better. Phishing is still a problem, but that can happen anywhere.

    But until there is a proper replacement for (reasonably) private asynchronous communication more than 144 characters long, email will live on. You can’t run a business on IM and Twitter or by txtng or “poking” people. Maybe email is not fun socially for kids, but right now there’s no replacement except to move backwards to snail mail.

  • http://www.thetrendjunkie.com Greg Cangialosi

    Far, far, far from being dead for sure. Like Tom O’Leary mentions above, email is evolving with the rest of the landscape. Its role is changing and despite what other may think, I believe its role is becoming more important than ever.

    Sure email has had its challenges and still does, but as a social and certainly a marketing medium, its alive and well and about to be seen in a new light soon.

    Thanks for the post – this is a good conversation.

    - Greg

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  • http://www.hyperoffice.com/ Pankaj

    Well, email refuses to die. Although it may never completely die out – its too simple to use, were too used to it – we can at least reduce the burden on its shoulders. Email is clearly not best for collaborative work (working together on files), and we need to shift to tools which are optimal for these purposes.

    We had recently done a whitepaper on the subject (http://hyperoffice.com/business-email-overload/) which was also covered by ZDNet (http://blogs.zdnet.com/BTL/?p=18692)

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