email is dead

whalefor the longest time, we’ve been hearing and reading that email is dead, dying, or destined to be gone in five years. always a skeptic, i never really believed it. that couldn’t possibly be right. most of us have been using email for what, 15 years or so? that’s unstoppable momentum.

but email’s on its way out and there’s no turning back.

a couple of weeks ago, i ran into an old friend from elementary school while waiting for the subway. we chatted for a bit, she asked me if i was on facebook, and we became friends there. in time, i became friends with a bunch of people from my old elementary school and there’s even a reunion of sorts taking place this sunday. i’m sure there were calls on other people’s ends, but it sure seems like a lot of it was done through facebook.

a couple days after that run-in, i got an email from someone who was a real good friend in elementary school, a side-effect of that chance subway meeting. he asked in his email why we didn’t stay in touch once we went off to our different high schools. the answer, i thought, was pretty simple — we didn’t have email. i didn’t have (much of) a problem staying in touch with high school friends because we all traded these weird collections of letters and numbers with an ampersand before leaving for college; none of us had used email, but we were told that we had email addresses. why not share them while we were passing phone numbers around? it seemed to make a lot of sense at the time, and it was a good move. i stayed in touch with all my high school friends, in one way or another, though college and am still friends with them today, either in person or virtually.

after college and a couple years of work, i had the bright idea of starting a blog. so did millions of other people. back then, i was writing nothing more than one or two lines, but i’d like to think that my online writing as progressed at least a little. seven years later, though, i barely touch the blog. friends of mine who also had blogs seem to be running into a similar bout of writer’s block. i like to think it’s because we’re all just a little too busy to keep a running diary of our lives, funny things that we come across, or great events to celebrate. but i also think we’re a little bored. it’s hard work keeping up a regularly-published piece of writing and there’s no real payoff to any of it. it sometimes seemed like another way to send out a mass email, at least for me, since most of the comments i’ve ever gotten on my blog were from friends anyway.

why does anyone need to blog anymore? we keep everyone informed about what we’re doing using mini-blogs like twitter and pownce. we get our news from news aggregators or, even better, RSS readers. we put our photos and movies up on sites like flickr and invite people to comment on them. we put bookmarks on sites like and share them with the world. and we keep our facebook profiles up to date with more information that we would otherwise ever divulge… and we get to update our status, message our friends, join groups, play scrabulous, send flowers to people, and share even more pictures and movies with others. we even get professional with it all and join linkedin. even better, we use a web browser like flock to take care of pulling in all this information together for us. if we tread carefully and responsibly, isn’t this a better way to do things? why wait for a return email when we can collaborate in near-real-time instead?

maybe this blog post doesn’t matter anymore because it’s too obvious. i’ve been trying to find the time to write this for a while now, but it took a somewhat slow friday to finally get my thoughts together. i’ve been trying the “email is dead” line with people at work and most aren’t really biting… do they need to catch up or will things just settle down to the same old thing?

i’m sold, though. and besides, it gives me an excuse to not return emails…

7 thoughts on “email is dead

  1. Oh, Basil, how come you don’t email me anymore?

    It’s hard for me to imagine email dying anytime soon; it’s how I did 90% of my communicating in my last job and probably 50% of my communicating in this job (no trend to be inferred there; just different kinds of jobs). But that’s the corporate market. In the consumer market of interpersonal communication, email probably is dying, but it’s a slow death, because the things that are replacing it create incremental forms of communication as much as they cannibalize the medium that preceded them.

    The same could be said about email. Its success is based on a few key benefits over in-person or phone conversation. The sender and receiver of an email don’t have to co-ordinate on communicating at a mutually agreeable time. Sometimes that just makes communication that otherwise would occur more convenient, especially to the receiver. Because of that, email tends to embolden the sender to say or request things s/he might not otherwise say or request. The fact that the sender can say everything s/he needs to say without a midstream interruption or reaction also has these consequences. Email opens up the portal to a lot of communication that would otherwise never occur.

    Blah, blah, blah; I know volumes have already been written on what email offers that traditional communication does not and I’ve barely scratched the surface. But I bring it up because a lot of the new forms of communication aren’t just replacing email – they’re creating additional communication. Email’s big drawback is that it takes longer to write that it does to talk. Typing emails out is a time waster. Most of what’s replacing email – IM, texting, Twitter, Facebook status updates, etc. – is deliberately geared at shorter messages. But while sometimes people opt for one of them as a more socially acceptable way to send a quick message than through email, people also use these mediums as a way to communicate trivial bits of information that they would seem inconsiderate to add to the queue in someone’s email inbox.

    Sigh. If we talked this over in person, you’d probably tell me you already know all of this and I didn’t need to waste so much time typing this out.

  2. aongus, i’d actually love to talk to you about this in person, because now i know what you do for a living (thanks, facebook!). ok, so i kinda knew that before to, with the L train rides into williamsburg in recent years, though you were working elsewhere then, right?

    even if i didn’t know all of that, it’s still good to hear it. maybe you’re right, that it’s only in non-corporate environments that email is starting to be replaced, but the thing that gets me is that all the forms of email-replacement that i mentioned are still text-based. maybe i’m too limited in my focus to see where something like skype would replace text-based communication, but that’s an answer to the email-is-slower issue. the problem that i keep running into is video chat requests first thing in the morning when i don’t really want to be seen.

    but even if emails stays alive in the workplace, it would become so much *better* if all the other crap — quick updates, personal bits, etc. — were moved elsewhere. i don’t know of a single person that’s really managed to separate work and personal email, though i try really hard to do that. email would become better without all the distractions.

    all i know is that i’ve got seven email addresses that i check regularly… and i probably get more communicating done outside of email than i do with it. that’s got to mean something.

  3. I have managed to completely separate work and personal emails, and it’s vastly improved my (typing) life.

  4. you know, i (reluctantly) joined facebook just a few weeks ago, because i too thought that this was the way the wind was blowing. i have to say that i don’t much care for it though, and don’t keep up with it like i kept up with email .

  5. Somehow I’ve deftly sidestepped all the hoo-ha going on over at Facebook and MySpace after being completely disappointed with initial experiments with Friendster and Orkut (no really, I don’t speak Portuguese). LinkedIn seems to be the only social network worth anything for an adult in my eyes. Honestly, I’m a bit tired of the walled garden approach to socialization. No, I really don’t want to join yet another social network to keep in touch with a different friend.

    But to your point about email, while I can see some trending there, I still see quite a bit of use being squeaked out of it. I still use it in corresponding with people who don’t have blogs of their own, it seems. And even when they do have blogs, I show up ridiculously late the the party (ahem).

    I hear you on the blog writer’s block though. Go figure with my languishing old one, I’ve just started a new one on my new domain. Desperate to get rid of the Kubrickian default, but where is there time in the day (I can only imagine how things are when you have little ones to look after)? To that point, I am concerned about trying to be 1000x better about regularly posting.

    I know you’ve been having issues getting into the twitter scene, but that’s where I’ve been able to find time at this point. 140 character messages? Heck, yeah I can handle that!

  6. interesting thoughts, bas.

    i don’t personally feel that e-mail is dying; not for me, anyway. there are a number of things that it does extremely well: asynchronous communication (as you point out), the chance to better word (theoretically) what it is you want to say, the ability to keep a record of what has happened, the chance to send along files, links and so on. Yes, there are other ways to accomplish these tasks, but e-mail has a level of privacy that some of these media (facebook) do not necessarily offer.

    i think, too, that more options makes sense in a way. i wouldn’t want to write an e-mail to all of the several hundred folks in my address book saying “today i’m happy”, but i can accomplish that on facebook (although, ok, it’s not really an accomplishment, per se). there are people for whom the occasional check-in via a social networking site is plenty for our relationship; there are others for whom that’s insufficient and a longer e-mail is better.

    i love instant messaging as well as video chat (this is what happens when your entire family is on macs). for the people i’m closest too, i love the ability to see them and talk to them with much greater frequency.

    i don’t think any of it is as satisfying sitting down with someone and having a beer or a coffee or a beer or a meal. or a beer. (which reminds me: we should go get a beer sometime soon) but with friends and family spread out everywhere, with everyone being so busy, with life being, well, life, i like having all these communication tools at my disposal.

    i don’t think e-mail will die, personally or professionally. no amount of instant messaging, text messaging, facebooking or the like can really replace the ability to privately write something of length to someone. letter writing has been around for a long time and i think it serves a pretty important need for a lot of people.

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