Home > Email, Social Media > RIP email. Is the writing on the Wall?

RIP email. Is the writing on the Wall?

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but in consumer technology, if you want to know what people like us will do tomorrow, you look at what teenagers are doing today. And the latest figures say that only 11% of teenagers email daily. So email – I can’t imagine life without it – is probably going away”

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg made this bold prediction in 2009. She’s not alone. Experts have been predicting the demise of email for years.

I must confess, until my flirtation with Twitter and LinkedIn turned into a full-on love affair I remained sceptical about such claims, such was my appreciation of and dependence on email in and out of work.

Today, I’m afraid email has lost its sparkle. It has become nothing more than a tedious, ponderous and bloated utility. My use is pretty much confined to business, where it remains ubiquitous and, for the foreseeable future, will remain so until someone comes up with a better dashboard for managing ones private business communications, tasks and appointments.

The communication element of email at work for many of us has largely been usurped by Instant Messaging. Email tends to get used when speed is not important, the person I wish to communicate is not immediately available, or I want to keep an easily accessible record of a request or response. Outside of work I have stopped using it other than where someone else requires or expects an email from me.

Some social mavericks have made public declarations of their intention to work without email. Professor Paul Jones now expects his colleagues and students to use other means to contact him. IBM staffer Luis Suarez has lived and worked for the last 3 years without email. Good for them – not so good perhaps for some their colleagues who are forced to use unfamiliar and unwelcome technologies if they wish to make contact.

Going back to Sheryl Sandberg, what she describes is life before work. Teenagers don’t need all that work stuff. What they want is instant communication gratification. Email is too slow. It doesn’t match up to their social intensity. Blackberry Messenger has given Blackberry a new lease of life and a whole new generation to sell to. Who’d have thought Blackberry would produce a TV ad aimed at teenagers a few years ago? My kids don’t want an iPhone because bbm is so highly valued among their age group.

This graph from Morgan Stanley’s 2010 Internet Trends report shows that in July 2009, social media users overtook email users across the globe for the first time and I bet that the gap will have grown significantly by the time their next report is published.

One thing that will keep email figures artificially high is that all of the emergent social media channels use email to drive traffic to their sites. Around 85% of my own private emails are Twitter, LinkedIn or Empire Avenue activity notifications.

By the time I read them I have already seen the details on the sites themselves, which present the information in a far more digestible and accessible way, which is why my private email inbox tends to be my last port of call when I go online every day.

My main activity within my private email account seems to be deleting pages and pages of unread, unwanted and unimportant emails.

What do you think? Do you think email will survive in its current form?

  1. Cal
    June 15, 2011 at 8:14 am

    Jon, this is such a great blog post and such a hot topic right now. As a social media marketer, I’m seeing this shift both professionally and personally. My brother is 24 and I don’t think he’s ever sent me an email – it’s text or Facebook messages for our communications, no deviation. However, my mum has become an avid emailer over the past couple of years, sending me regular updates from home, yet she herself admits that she finds the concept of Facebook and social sharing ‘weird’.

    However, I think that email will not ‘die’ as many people claim. Ten years ago people were predicting the death of the paper letter, yet the amount of junk mail on my desk (coupled with invoices, contracts etc.) is testament to the fact that post is still used – and email will be too. However, as you claim, its use will have to alter.

    You raise the point about speed and immediacy and I think this hits the nail on the head. Couple this with the current trend of ‘curation’ and we can see where email is heading. We live in a content-driven society – and there’s far too much information on the Internet for us all to trawl through, so the ‘email newsletter’ is becoming increasingly used as a source of regular curation – ‘here’s what we (and therefore you may) like this month.

    Email will never die – but by heck, it’s having to change!

    • Jon
      June 15, 2011 at 7:00 pm

      Your domestic email experience pretty much mirrors mine Callum. There is a clear generational thing going on here. My mother also is a heavy email user. Having been resistant for years she is now pretty reliant on it, just at the time my kids moved away from it. She doesn’t get facebook and won’t play, while my kids simply don’t see why anyone would not do shared conversations and status updates. My older brother got on to Twitter for a while and it was brilliant. We dipped in and out of each other’s lives far more than we did before. I agree with your curation point but am not sure the email newsletter model is the way forward. Rather than have communication pushed out to me I prefer to pull it in and package it myself. Thanks for your contribution to a fascinating debate!

  2. June 15, 2011 at 10:22 am

    Hi Jon,

    This is a great post and a topic which is very hot right now. Another company which has declared its future abstinence from email is Atos Origin – I recently wrote a feature for Strategic Communication Magazine about the death of email in internal comms: http://www.internalcommshub.com/trial/channels/casestudies/emaildead.shtml

    • Jon
      June 15, 2011 at 7:04 pm

      Thanks for dropping by Luke – I will read your article as soon as my Melcrum membership is reinstated. It lapsed a few weeks ago so I cannot follow the link – unless of course you fancy sending me the text by email ;-)

  3. June 15, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Great post Jon, the sentence about instant communication gratification particularly resonated.

    For me it ignites the debate about the value of timed comms channels, e.g. monthly or bi-monthly/quarterly publications within companies as news is so, well, ‘new’ nowadays. Therefore keeping content relevant and fresh whilst grappling with time-delayed publishing schedules gets increasingly harder as there are more opportunities for employees to share and read news inbetween issues. I agree with Cal’s point about the ‘email newsletter’ – my inbox appears to be regularly filled with curated messages.

    We all know the topic of printed publications is another can of worms which I’m not going to delve into now, however the point I’m making is that regardless of the method we use, understanding how people like to send and receive information, and their timing, is key to providing a range of channels so they can communicate effectively in the manner they prefer.

    BBM and Facebook/Twitter appear to be the Ferrari of vehicles at the moment, but I don’t think email is dead yet. However it may be that the rust is beginning to appear.

    “Tedious, ponderous, a bloated utility” and now “rusty” – the future for email doesn’t appear bright!…

    Rachel

    • Jon
      June 15, 2011 at 7:15 pm

      Hi Rachel – I’m with you on the timed comms channels. I’m afraid I just don’t see a place for bi-monthly/quarterly publications in the modern workplace. The cost involved in producing this kind or internal ‘organ’ combined with the fact that it is out of date long before it is ‘sent to the printers’ and it has no scope for interactivity makes it a non-starter in my book (sorry, I mean Kindle ;-) Thanks for your comments!

  4. June 15, 2011 at 11:00 am

    Great article, and many interesting points raised! I do not think e-mail will entirely disappear, but other platforms have taken away its appeal (for the moment). I used to use e-mail everyday, and would often have long e-mail conversations with friends and family alike. However with the introduction of Facebook changed that, where people are more likely to check and respond to their Facebook messages than their personal e-mails! I have ended up using that for communications out of habit, and ease. I think it will have to evolve to suit our fast-paced world!

    • Jon
      June 15, 2011 at 7:29 pm

      I’m not sure that there is any going back. Email began very slowly and took 30 years to evolve in to what we use today. Google and others (including Facebook), are doing their own thing to keep that evolution moving, and as far as I can see the email of the future will bear little resemblance to that of the past. If it does, it won’t be with us for much longer. Thanks for dropping by!

  5. June 15, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    Hi Jon! What a fantastic write-up! Many many thanks for putting it together and for sharing it along with all of us! Appreciated as well the link love! It’s interesting how you mentioned above how those of us who have ditched corporate email will have our colleagues “suffering” in this new social networking world, if they are not too familiar with the social tools. And I thought I would comment on that for a second… Yes, you are right, it can be frightening and scary at best, if nothing else happens, but one of the reasons why I have been very successful myself in ditching corporate email, and I am sure the same would work for Prof. Paul Jones, is because we have gone the extra mile and spend a few minutes here and there with our colleagues showing them, teaching them, how to make use of these social tools, so that eventually that learning curve is not as steep as it may seem.

    In fact, spending as little as 5 minutes per person educating them on how to achieve a particular task using social software has worked wonders for me all along and still the main reason why I continue to make it work. Already in my 4th year and averaging 16 emails per week, which is not too bad, I guess, specially, considering how much people still depend on it. I don’t. I depend on people, they are social, and they are using social tools. That’s where you will find them, and me, connecting and collaborating with one another.

    From that perspective, yes, to me, email has got its days numbered …

    • Jon
      June 15, 2011 at 8:14 pm

      Thanks for your kind words Luis – and for not biting my head off for my less than diplomatic turn of phrase in suggesting you and other social mavericks are indulging yourselves at the expense of your colleagues. The truth is I allowed envy to creep into my prose. I have nothing but admiration (and a touch of jealousy) for your stance on email. I’d drop email tomorrow if I could but I would be out of a job within days and I love my job.

      What I love most about your visit to Riding the ripple is the fact that I didn’t email you or alert you to the fact that I had mentioned you in this post. The social tools you live and breath by brought you here under your own volition. You could have ignored the trail along with my blog post and I’d think nothing of it. However, if I wrote a letter or sent you an email asking for you to contribute to this debate and you turned down my request I’d be disappointed. If you didn’t reply I may consider you rude. As it is neither of us had to contend with these issues because of the power of social media.

      Great isn’t it! Thanks again for taking the time to contribute!

      • June 16, 2011 at 5:00 pm

        Hi Jon! Thanks much for the follow-up and for the wonderful insights! I could see where you were going with the blog post and loved the direction, so thought I would add my ¢2 as well into the conversation. The funny part is that, indeed, I got alerted about this blog post, by what has become one of my most reliable sources ever: my social networks. They were the ones who found the blog post and who brought it to my attention. The rest was just me taking the plunge and share some further insights, so we would have to thank them for being alert and for sharing along through that social filter the content that matters to me, just as much as I do with them. It does prove the system works as long as you cultivate it and nurture it accordingly. And it looks like so far it is happening :-D

        Thanks again for the inspiring post and look forward to further interactions!

  6. Tony Harris
    June 15, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    I find it somewhat frivolous that people honestly believe that email is dead. Whilst I agree that the young generation of today dictates the technology of the future, the fact remains that unless you wipe out 2/3rds of the human population, email cannot die. It may become less prevalent but it certainly cannot die.

    Example 1.
    Just because 1 person in IBM does not use email doesn’t mean email is dead. That’s just personal choice.
    Example 2
    Register for any site or service and the next piece of information they ask after you name is email address.
    Example 3
    People dont like change. If you’ve grown up during the era of email you’ll be hard pushed to stop using it. Please note the fax machine still exists!
    Example 4
    Email is to technology what the CD is to music (I hope I have that right), CDs are slowly being replaced but let’s face it. We all still have cd’s in our house/car right ? And I bet you still have that mix tape from yester year!
    Example 5
    Businesses invest how much each year in email? To suddenly switch that off and move to collaborative solutions is neither cost effective or even technically possible. How many people in your company know what a wiki is for?

    I could go on but I’ve got 53 unread emails to plough though!!!! (is that Example 6… I think so)

    But honestly, I agree with Cal’s comments above. Email won’t die, it will change or more likely, fade away.

    Email serves a valid purpose and until that purpose is no longer required, only then can it be burried in the sky with faxes… Oh hold on!

    I trust I have made my point. Rant over.

    Tony.

  7. June 15, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    @Tony, very very true and happy to take you on that challenge; when I first started this initiative it was just me, 4 years later tracking progress the company has done recent studies / research where we have reduced, substantially, by over 35% our email dependency, which, I am not sure, what you would think, but that’s a whole lot more than just one person. I can give you names of hundreds of fellow IBMers AND customers I interact with on a daily basis without using a single email in between. Quite the opposite, using rather internal or external social software tools. Take your pick. Again, I think we are all agreeing here that email won’t be dead any time soon (Is the Fax dead already? Exactly, my point!); what we are trying to say is that email is no longer the king of communication and collaboration; it’s just one other option out there, fighting its way amongst several others which are much more effectively.

    Just like what happened to the fax when email first came on board within the corporate world, so is the same fate email is going to suffer with social networking tools. Time will tell, indeed, but four years for those around me and yourself can surely tell you that email is at the same level of fax, or even voicemails. Are you still getting any of them on a regular basis? It’s been over 5 years, since I last got one of those …

    • Tony Harris
      June 15, 2011 at 6:59 pm

      @Luis. Thanks for taking the time to reply. It’s good to see more and more people are embracing Social tools. I totally agree that there are more effective ways to communicate than email but often people fall back into there comfort zone.

      If main stream email has been around for about 10 years then I predict it will take another 10 year for it to fade away.

      I think it’s also worth pointing out that although time on social sites has gone through the roof email usage hasn’t really changed.

      The real measure here is productivity. If you can improve productivity whilst using social media then I personally believe that would spell a faster demise of email. But now your into you political challenges and cultural challenges. A whole new ball game.

      My sole grip here is when people proclaim email is dead.

      Thank you and please teach me how to have an empty inbox!

      • Jon
        June 15, 2011 at 10:53 pm

        @tony Excellent – very happy that someone has taken a more contrary position on this, although I think we all agree in the end, that unless it undergoes a pretty radical transformation email will fade away. There seems to be a clear distinction between business and social use of email and it is the social use that is already in terminal decline.

        I still have a pile of CDs, but like my collection of 400 vinyls, that’s all it is, a collection. A relic of a bygone age which I look at fondly but never use. As for fax machines, I refuse to do business with any company that requires a fax. I’m sorry, but they really are dead. My tip for having an empty inbox is to make sure you send fewer emails than you receive: http://j0n1.com/2011/04/19/are-you-a-giver-or-a-taker/

        @elsua Thanks for taking up Tony’s challenge Luis. Interesting insights from inside IBM, the company whose products were right at the very heart of the invention of email.

      • June 16, 2011 at 5:09 pm

        Tony, in my own experience, and that of those folks who I interact with on a daily basis, social tools are much more effective and efficient than email, therefore making us more productive. As a starting point email has stopped being that delegation machine we have all become addicted to; you may be right it may take us another 10 years to ditch email altogether, but I tell you something, if you take BACN out of the equation (i.e. all of the notifications we receive from social media tools, which I have converted myself into RSS feeds, by the way), I bet the trend of email volume would be falling down at a rampant pace.

        In my own experience I feel that’s the main reason why I believe email is still around today as much as it is today. Take those notifications out and email has no longer the value it once had. Like I said, I don’t think email is dead or will be dead any time soon. I am just mentioning how it’s no longer the king of our online interactions and has just become another option, in most cases, not the best one, even, for collaboration.

        To help reduce your dependency on email, may I suggest to take a look into this blog post, where I am sharing a mindmap, and a recording explaining it all and how I go around it? It would help clarify why I started this initiative and why 4 years of tracking later I am still doing it … Hope that helps …

        @Jon, well, yes, you see? Collaboration is a whole lot more than just email or email clients ;-)) It’s about having the right mindset to work smarter, not necessarily harder, and I am all up for that! :) hehe

  8. June 15, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    Coming in late. I had meetings with people ;-> and tweets with @elsua

    First thanks for the link love and the insights, Jon.

    Tony, I say: “email in name only is #noemail and that’s a good thing too.” as I write about Rockmelt and Facebook moving to change the ways we work in messaging http://ibiblio.org/pjones/blog/rockmelt-facebook-toward-a-social-browser-noemail/ As someone who wrote some of the earlier email programs and interfaces, I can say that email has morphed a lot in 30 years, but not in a way that is very good and is getting worse despite Gmail’s best efforts to make email make sense.

    All studies now show that email is by far a bigger time sink than all other social media combined. One reason is that people, believe it or not, seem to be better at moderating and restricting their own social media use — with some additional help from their employers ;-> The only timesink greater than email? Telephone.

    I’m not going into #noemail with some concise idea of where we’ll end up or how fast we’ll get there. I do see that all the signs of change are in place and that change makes more sense. I like to say that we have a complex communications practice and a varied and changing sense of activity streams with email uncomfortably at the center. My experiment, #noemail, is to see what happens when we take email out of the center starting with stopping it all together. So far so good.”

    How to get an empty inbox? Send mail to jones@unc.edu and read my away message. It’s all a work in progress, but it’s progressing. Luis’ experience and advice has been invaluable.

    Luke, I’d love to read your article, but, like Jon, I can’t access it.

    Note: I didn’t need email to comment on this blog. Thx WP.com

    • Jon
      June 15, 2011 at 11:19 pm

      @smalljones It kinda proves something that like @elsua you found your way here without a formal invitation. I’ll say it again. Living proof of the power of social media. Thanks for joining the discussion, I’ll be watching your #nomail experiment with great interest.

      Obviously I had to take your advice and email you. I hope you don’t mind me sharing your away message here to save readers firing up their email client!
      ________________________________________________

      I’m giving up email beginning June 1, 2011. But f I’ll be open to
      communicating through many other channels and technologies. I’m
      convinced that there must be better and more effective ways for us to
      communicate and to get our work done.

      You will be able to reach me on
      Facebook http://www.facebook.com/smallJones
      Diaspora https://joindiaspora.com/people/7472
      and on most socialnetworking sites as smalljones including:
      Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/smalljones
      Gtalk,
      AIM,
      Skype,
      Quora,
      Hunch http://hunch.com/pjones/
      LinkedIn http://www.linkedin.com/in/smalljones
      DropBox,
      YouTube,
      XtraNormal
      and on The Real Paul Jones blog http://ibiblio.org/pjones/blog

      If you’d like to schedule a meeting with me, my calendar is on Google
      Calendar http://www.google.com/calendar as smalljones@gmail.com You
      can pick a time there and schedule your best time to meet face to
      face.

      Sharing documents? Use GoogleDocs and/or DropBox -
      smalljones@gmail.com & jones@unc.edu respectively

      Have ibiblio.org questions, suggestions or problems?
      http://www.ibiblio.org/help/ is your best way to access our team.

      Phone? Yes voice & txt. See FB info for my number

      I’ll probably be on freenode too. More details on that later.

      I’m also open to other suggestions; please feel free to send me your good ideas.

      For more about the #noemail project, see
      http://ibiblio.org/pjones/blog/category/noemail/

      Paul Jones


      “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” Alasdair Gray
      “And best of all is finding a place to be in the early days of a better
      civilization.” Dennis Lee

    • June 16, 2011 at 5:14 pm

      Wonderful commentary, Paul! I am really glad you have dropped by and shared your insights as well, coming along from a different background, but with similar keen interest in helping reduce the email pain and dependency and looking for plenty of alternatives that could be more productive than what email is today. Your story surely is quite an inspiration and I am happy to have included it already as part of my discourse on living “A World Without Email”, showing how the number of folks wanting to free up themselves from email is growing day in day out! Keep it up and if there is anything that I can help out with, please do get in touch! We both know where we can find each other :) hehe

  9. June 16, 2011 at 3:02 am

    One other hint, I started with the away message about a month before June 1 so that folks would have plenty of time to adjust or freak out or ignore me. I used that time to figure out which mailing lists to unsubscribe to, which to move to RSS feeds for my reader and to calm folks who were somehow offended by the idea that I wouldn’t be on email. (One very occasional correspondent actually began “You *used* to be my friend.”)

    With a month lead, you can learn and adjust a lot of things and make your life and your correspondents lives easier too.

  1. June 15, 2011 at 11:13 am
  2. December 9, 2011 at 2:31 pm
  3. January 6, 2012 at 4:35 pm

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