I caught a comment from SXSW yesterday, where my friend Suzanne Minassian sent a tweet from a panel she was at:
are we going to lose email to social networking – discussing in panel #sxsw (minassian)
*insert backward-playing tape noise sound effect here*
So when I left university in…. oh… 90-something I ended up joining the UK Post Office IT Services (weirdly, this is my second PO-related post today, albeit more tenuously-linked than the first). As part of the interview process I was asked to give a presentation about ways that the organisation could adapt to the electronic age and the challenges of the Internet. The content of the presentation has long been filed away somewhere dusty, disposed of or lost, but I do remember that my main points were:
- Physical mail won’t ever go away. People like to receive physical objects, letters, and parcels. Humans are fundamentally social and tactile.
- As e-commerce grows, parcel mail will grow.
- There were other ways that the PO could get value from the Internet – I didn’t suggest the ISP route but did talk about, for example, local printing of electronically-transmitted letters as a kind of bridge between the physical and electronic worlds (well, it seemed like an idea as a student at the time, what can I say?!).
I like to think that my first two predictions were pretty accurate – since the mid-1990s the volumes of mail have indeed grown. In my own case I suppose I get a lot less post in the way of bills and statements since much of that is done online; and I write and send fewer personal letters, although birthday cards and the like remain physical objects of importance. I do a lot of online shopping and physical shipping of goods, and ebay has of course increased that trend (and helped the rise of the Mailboxes, Etc chain, as far as I can tell). So in a very real sense, snail mail has not been lost to email. In one way it’s been multiplied by it, and looking at it another way, you could say it has become more focussed by the rise of the Internet and online business.
*fast-forwarding tape sound effect*
And now, back in the present day…
I think the same thing is true of social networks and their effect on email. Much as I admire and respect my good friend Luis Suarez‘s assault on the tyranny of email, I think what he has found is that there’s a base level of mail which he continues to get, as email is often still the most appropriate channel for certain, private or behind-the-firewall communications, for example. In fact, I’m willing to bet that he also gets a bunch of messages that have been generated by the social networks he’s part of, too – I get emails when I receive direct messages, or someone new follows me, or whatever, although it’s possible to opt-out or filter them out.
The core of the email I receive though, is also focussed or narrowed down by the networks I participate in. It’s often far quicker to drop a short line to a friend over IM or direct message then it is to send an email, and I can broadcast status and information to groups more effectively via a Facebook profile or whatever than I could by mass-mailing them all.
I think the effect we’re seeing is a levelling out and an adjustment whereby the relevant tools and means of communication – phone, text, mail, email, IM, and social network messages – all come together and start to be used in the most effective ways, where one size does not fit all.