An article over at the Wall Street Journal titled Why Email No Longer Rules has been making the rounds, claiming that email is on its way out. Twitter and Facebook are pointed out as the successors to the throne of communication. The article states that according to Nielsen Co., the “number of users on social-networking and other community sites jumped 31% to 301.5 million people.” This number is about 9% larger than the number of email users in the same survey for August 2009. The rest of the article suggests that centralised profile pages and status updates reduce the need for email since people already know what you are up to.
This is just one article of the regular ‘the end is neigh’ pieces that pop up about email every year. This year Twitter and Facebook are the supposed email killers. A couple of years ago it was instant messaging which was due to kill off email. It’s probably just a matter of time before Google Wave will be touted as the next dethroner in earnest.
It’s an easy mistake to make. Technology writers see some new fancy technology with a high growth rate and naturally expect it to displace existing technology. As history has shown though this hasn’t been the case. Email usage is still growing. It was growing when the Forbes’ article was written and it’s still growing today. In fact the very same WSJ article points out that the number of email users grew by 21% between 2008 and 2009. And if the corresponding social networking growth is a tad larger, we have mentioned before that social media users actually use more email – not less.
There are obvious reasons why email is not going away. Kit Eaton at Fast Company points out some obvious ones like how you can’t send a file in a tweet or how you wouldn’t work on an important business document in Facebook. And just like we wrote in our Google Wave analysis last month, he rises the issue of complexity. Google Wave is actually hard to explain. Email is not.
But most important of all, email is a simple communication method with a persistent history. Yes, instant messaging is big and has been big since before the Forbes article. But if you have something important to say the transient feeling of instant messages may just not be enough. An email leaves a permanent record and is less likely to be overlooked. What’s more, most of your business contacts are people you don’t have in your instant messaging client. It’s too personal. Would you really want that high maintenance customer in constant contact? People see when you are online and can start to bombard you with messages. When hiring, would you like to have a 200 name long list of candidates in your Messenger just to receive resumes, people to whom you will only speak once for the most part?
And this is the real answer to the musings in the WSJ article. Status updates seen by all your friends would be fine and well if the only thing we used email for was to share vacation photos and ‘got a new job!’ notifications. But that’s not what we do. Email is used to contact people other than our friends, to talk about more than what we did for the weekend, and to get real work done in a neutral setting. Facebook and Twitter mix our communication with more people and more play and while that is a fantastic and fun thing, it’s just not a substitute for email.
If Facebook and Twitter could become more formal for business communications, maybe less ‘friend’ oriented for short term contacts, if they could provide good full featured clients for dispatching and organising messages, and if they had good, easy to search archiving for future reference purpose, and maybe if they were just a little bit more simple… Then they could have replaced email but for one thing. We already have exactly that solution – and it is called email.