The end of email?

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 (minassian)

*insert backward-playing tape noise sound effect here*

So when I left university in…. oh… 90-something πŸ™‚ 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.

11 thoughts on “The end of email?”

  1. Andy,

    Email will never be lost. I think it is and will always be vital organ in the electronic anatomy of any organization. But organs serve specific purposes. I think, to the great benefit of the organism it serves, usage of the email system in the enterprise will decrease as use of social software increases. The collective brain of the enterprise will be much healthier (and more competitive) for it.

  2. Andy,
    what I see is a dramatic decrease in the use of “bad” emails. People are starting to realize that a IM or a tweet can be more effective than a mail for some purposes; same for shotgun emails. This is only good. Having more ways of collaborating means people will start to use the most appropriate one depending on the purpose. We’ll be more efficient in the end, hopefully.

    1. I agree – I think more people are thinking about the use of mass mails, or single line mails when it’s far quicker to ping. A very positive effect.

  3. Hi Andy! Great blog post and plenty of food for thought in there! Really nice! I am really glad you are pointing out that my intention is not that one of killing e-mail altogether and get rid of it. In my experience of living “A World without Email” for more than a year I never said that email is dead. On the contrary, it’s going to be with us for a long while since there will always be a need to communicate sensitive / confidential information on a 1:1 basis, but for the rest I am strong believer it can live OUTSIDE the inbox.

    And during that time I have been able to prove that point. What’s interesting from your blog post is how eventually you point out exactly what will be happening with email soon enough:

    “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.”

    Now, who would have thought about something like that, specially for those businesses that are email driven? Not many, I can imagine! Well, that’s where we are eventually heading …

    And incredibly timely, have a re-listen of this Sweettt podcasting episode both Matt and myself recorded a little while ago. Spot on w.r.t. how we are going to use email over time… πŸ™‚

    Like I said, plenty of food for thought and perhaps a follow up blog post coming up shortly!

    1. One thing I do like about your approach, Luis, is how you’ve used this effort to challenge many of those businesses which, as you say, have become email-centric – almost accidentally, really. I remember one group I spoke to about Web 2.0 vehemently insisting that email was all they needed… and yet they admitted to having retention problems with younger staff who wanted to use IM etc. Interesting πŸ™‚

      1. Hi Andy! Thanks for the follow up! Yes, indeed, I know what you mean. Like I said, I am not stating that email will disappear any time soon; that’s not going to happen; what I am just trying to do is to “wake up” people a bit and make them Think! before they get to send out that other email, because there may be a better way. And in most cases there is. That’s what the younger staff is also trying to push. It’s a new way of setting different expectactions and meet them up along the way πŸ˜‰

  4. …is it about removing email from our lives? it certainly sometimes feels that we are suffering “death by email”

    perhaps, just maybe, the change will come in a more personalised service? where we shall receive our digital messages in a manner that is most convenient for our transient environments…

    Let’s set back to the bygone days of twitter 1.0, when the plethora of third-party twit-apps did not yet exist – but the core twitter infrastructure was complemented by both a gtalk/XMPP and a SMS option too. What this offered was an awareness – if I was online and logged into GTalk, then I received twit-notifications via an instant message; when I was not online, I would receive a SMS message (but only during certain hours that I configured). The twitter messages remained available for review online too, or for that old way of asynchronous messaging – using email !

    Imagine the experience of yet more refined awareness. Using whatever display (and audio too) that is available to make your e-messages available for review … like a digital personal assistant that is rather promiscuous about the medium used to share your content. Within your home this might use TV screens, PDA, TV remote control unit, your watch (a “message piece” not just a time-piece), your stereo system, digital paper (text-to-speed), … or even print out your messages just before you step out the door – for you to read on the train! Hey, why not printed on the reverse side of your bus ticket. As you head to work, it could display a non-confidential message on a dot-matrix message board as your walk nearby.

    All this to offer lively messages on the move, living your life detached from email. Naturally, this should be achieved via trusted or secured channels; and applying my own policy controls on what types of messages can be displayed where and when – and from whom! it is not the send you dictates how I receive the message, send email and I get it in a manner that is most convenient for me –

    Drats, I should have asked: would you have preferred me to have sent this to you by email … ?

  5. I actually think that we’ll place less importance on post offices and instead have people pick up packages at our homes in addition to letters.

    Postage meters for small businesses like mine have really taken off. I’m saving a lot of time by not going to the post office to mail my products and money because of the USPS discounts that I can get because I signed up with I imagine that this will catch on, and the post office will become more like FedEx rather than the DMV. πŸ™‚

    1. Good thought, Sarah. I think the UK PO has a lot more of a structural problem, though, and there’s a hint of desperation about the efforts here to change the system to save it. In the UK the business mail monopoly has only been opened up relatively recently so I think the situation is somewhat different – but really appreciate your perspective on this!

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