Reports of Email’s Death Appear to Be Exaggerated

HonestReporting's social media editor, Alex Margolin, contributes occasional posts on social media issues. He oversees HonestReporting on Facebook.

Email Ever since the rise of social media, pundits have been predicting the collapse of email as a tool for the masses. Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg recently told a conference audience that teens preferred instant messages to email, signaling that the old electronic mail stalwart has run its course.

"Email–I can't imagine life without it–is probably going away," Sandberg said. "If you want to know what people like us will do tomorrow, you look at what teenagers are doing today,"

In the Wall Street Journal last October, reporter Jessica Vascellaro explained that email no longer served its purpose when we’re constantly connected through mobile phones and fast Internet connections.

Why wait for a response to an email when you get a quicker answer over instant messaging? Thanks to Facebook, some questions can be answered without asking them. You don't need to ask a friend whether she has left work, if she has updated her public "status" on the site telling the world so. Email, stuck in the era of attachments, seems boring compared to services like Google Wave . . . .

Well, reports of email’s death appear to be exaggerated. Just this week, Google announced it was discontinuing Google Wave. The service Google had hoped would replace Gmail simply did not attract enough users.

So how do we explain email’s victory over an opponent as technically advanced as Google Wave? After all, Google Wave could do everything email could do, and many things beyond, including almost real-time collaboration on documents.

Besides the obvious reason – that people are satisfied with their email service and did not see the need to change – the succession of events highlights two particular trends taking place on the Internet today.

1. Google Wave, like many new technological innovations, is part of a glut of products being created much faster than they can be consumed by a critical mass of people.

Many top technology blogs feature reviews of new software packages with stunning new capabilities. The next day, there will be a new batch of product reviews. The result is the accumulation of technology that has not yet found its use by the people.

Products that catch on today are often diverted from their original intention by users. Twitter, for example, was originally created to help people keep up with friends through frequent updates of mundane activities. As the adoption rate grew, users – not Twitter managment the company – established norms such as the “retweet” and the hashtag organizing system. The service rose as a major communications tool during the attack on Mumbai, as people posted information in near-real time.

So email will survive because people already know how they plan to use it. Google Wave may have increased those options, but its failure to catch on indicates that there is little demand for a quantum leap in email capability.

2. Email allows users to resist infomation overload.

Being connected to the net full time may quicken the pace of productivity, but it also leads to burnout and a need for retreat. While it might be frustrating to “wait for a response to an email,” at least we get to set the pace of our communications.

Ironically, the same term was used about the need to sort out the glut of emails people would find when they arrived to work each morning. How much more it would apply to day’s work environment.

Previously in Alex's series: Escaping the Internet’s Echo Chamber