Is E-mail Becoming Obsolete?

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Is E-mail Becoming Obsolete?

Post by shanaya on July 21st 2009, 9:25 pm

Is Email Becoming Obsolete?

It's been over a year since the "experts" cited by Bombay Business Standard pronounced email (along with instant messaging) an "obsolete tool that could act as a roadblock for the growth of web collaboration."

They weren't the first or only ones to declare email on its way out. A year earlier, I first read a NetAge blog post titled "Email is for Old People." The basic premise was that young folks see email as only slightly less primitive than communicating by carrier pigeon or smoke signals. "Young people post. They don't email," according to the speaker quoted in the post.

I admit I dismissed the idea at the time. My Inbox was as full as ever - hundreds of messages per day - and the vast majority of my business was conducted via email. I found it hard to imagine that any other technology could replace email, although I certainly saw the usefulness of other means of communication in certain situations. Well, here we are approaching the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, and email is still an important part of my communications infrastructure. Checking my mail is still the first thing I do when I sit down at my computer each day. I still get a large volume of mail from friends, family, readers and business associates.

However, I've noticed a significant decline in email traffic over the last year or so. I still get a lot, but not nearly as much as I once did. It's not that I'm communicating less or with fewer people - in fact, I'm communicating an increasing amount of information to more people than ever before - but I am, indeed, often using other tools to do it. And I like that flexibility.

I can't help but think social networking sites have caused some of this reduction in email. In many cases where I would previously have emailed several different friends and family members with a bit of news (such as the fact that my daughter was coming home for a visit or that my son was going to Spain for a chess tournament), now I just post that news to my Facebook site and all those same friends and family members see it there. For longer, one-to-one communications, I often find myself getting private messages on Facebook instead of emails. There are several email discussion lists I've belonged to for over a decade. Several of these lists that formerly were very active have gone almost dormant in the last year. It's not because the members suddenly stopped having anything to say to one another. It's because most of the members have joined Facebook, and we've formed groups there where we now carry on the discussions that were done via email in the past.

I'm getting less business-related email these days, too, even though I'm working as much as ever (and still doing most of it online). In cases where, in the past, I would have been emailing documents and revisions back and forth with editors or clients, now we post them to a SharePoint site or share them via Groove. And information that once might have been shared in email messages is now disseminated - with real time interaction and graphical illustrations - via Live Meeting.

Even WXPnews/VistaNews reader feedback has recently been moved from an email model to web forums. Why? There are several advantages. Before, I had to read through all the email messages and pick the ones to print in the follow-up. We were limited in the number we could share with the rest of the readers. With the forums, anyone can post and everyone can see all the posts - and readers can interact with each other, responding to one another's comments. It's also more timely; you don't have to wait until the next newsletter comes out to see what other people are saying. And with the old model, if your email got in after the next newsletter was written, it wouldn't get printed, no matter how insightful and profound it was. This is another example of a case where the web application works better than email for the specific purpose.

We're even getting less email spam than before, and have been wondering if that's because the spammers are starting to focus more on social networking sites and other more "modern" communications venues. After all, the youth market is a big one for marketers and if young people aren't using email, spam that's aimed at them will better reach its target audience through the technologies that they do embrace.

On the other hand, some say it's the other way around, that it's the prevalence of spam that has caused the decline in email. In fact, many people have apparently turned to text messaging instead of email to avoid spam - but that, of course, leads to a new phenomenon: spam text messages. In this case, the cure could be worse than the disease; if you don't have an unlimited texting plan, you not only end up with ads but you have to pay for them.

Maybe that's the reason web based communications such as Facebook and Twitter have gained so much popularity. This also signals a subtle change in the scope of our communications as well as just the technology by which we communicate, a move from one-to-one messaging toward one-to-many broadcasting. After all, it's much more efficient to impart the info to a group than to send it to one person at a time. Sure, we've always been about to copy an email message to multiple recipients, but there's a difference. Broadcasting to your Facebook friends list is more dynamic than sending an email message with a large cc: list.

So does all this mean I'm going to be uninstalling Outlook and tearing down my Exchange server? Hardly. The nice thing about today's technology is that you have more options, and you can pick the medium that best fits the message. I still use email a lot, but I also use Twitter for some types of communications, Facebook for others, instant messaging for still others. Heck, on occasion I still make phone calls or even go the really old-fashioned route and send a letter on paper in a stamped envelope through the postal service.

I'm learning, too, that certain people are best reached through particular venues. I have friends who have Facebook pages but they almost never visit or update them, whereas I know other folks who never check their email, but a Facebook message gets their attention immediately. Some people (like me) don't answer the phone any more than absolutely necessary and try to keep those conversations as short as possible. Others prefer voice communications over any other kind. Some are logged into their IM client all day and night, whereas others avoid instant messaging like the plague. Different strokes for different folks, and if you want your message to get to the right person, as quickly as possible, it pays to know your audience.

One thing that could drastically reduce my usage of email in a hurry is the implementation of a proposal that's being put forth by numerous people and organizations, to impose a tax of "a few cents per message" on email. It's an idea that's been floating around for a long time (including in hoax messages that falsely stated such a bill was already before the U.S. Congress), and most recently was semi-endorsed by a piece in the New York Times:

In addition to killing newsletters such as this one (which would cost us over $10,000 per week if a one cent per message tax were imposed), such taxation would cause many individuals and businesses to find other ways to communicate over the Internet. We can send private messages on Facebook, set up more SharePoint servers, IM instead of emailing, and otherwise use alternatives to email that aren't subject to the tax. The tax is presented as a way to protect us from spam, but what it would really do, in my opinion, is make email obsolete.

What do you think? Do you use email as much as ever, or have you seen the amount of outgoing and/or incoming mail decline recently? Does that correspond to your use of social networking sites? Do you know people who never check their email at all? Are you one of those people? Which electronic communications method would you choose if you were limited to only one for all your communications? Would you stop sending email if you had to pay a tax on each message? We encourage you to discuss this topic in our forums at
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