Is email dead? No, but it’s not well

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.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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