The Death of Email (is being prematurely reported)

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in January of 2009.

Friends of mine who are active on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are fond of proclaiming that email is dead. And, certainly, those of us who are active on these networks send less email to each other than we used to. I’m much more likely to direct message, tweet, or write on someone’s wall if I have a quick question, comment or information referral for someone, the latter two if it’s a question or info that I might benefit from having other people in my online community see.

But I don’t see these alternatives as ships carrying the grim reaper onto email’s shores — I think they’re more likely the saviors of email. As I said a couple of weeks ago in my “Myth of KISS” post, email applications are heavily abused, and they’re not very good at managing large amounts of information. This hasn’t stopped a good 90% of the people online from using email as their primary information aggregator. We get:

  • Personal emails
  • Mailing List items
  • ENewsletters
  • Automated alerts
  • Spam!
  • and a host of other things

in our email inboxes every day. The inbox places new messages on top and older messages scroll down and out of sight. Almost every email program on earth lets you, as you make time for it, pull emails into named folders, mark them as important, order them by name or date or subject, search for them, and archive them to some other part of your storage space, but none of them do more than some basic filtering and prioritizing for you, perhaps IDing 90% of the spam and, if you’re a power user, allowing you to place messages from certain people in special folders.

The exception to the standard email processing rules is Google’s GMail, which does innovative threading and labeling, allowing for, in my opinion, a superior tool for information management, but it’s still a lot of work. The tools will improve, but it’s kind of like hiring a better maid service to clean up congress – they’ll make the halls shinier, but the same legislators will show up for work on the next day.

The answer is to acknowledge that email applications, as we know them, were never meant to process upwards of twenty or thirty messages a day. The information management defaults assume a manageable number of items, and many of us are way past that threshold. The power of alternative messaging mediums is that they are tailored to the types of messages they deliver, and their tools sets are accordingly more refined and targeted. If you get newsletters and alerts in your email, switch to RSS. If you do a lot of short messages or work coordination, look at IM. If you announce or broadcast information, or survey your contacts, use Twitter or Facebook. These mediums are, so far, much less susceptible to spam, and you can ignore messages once you’ve read them or skipped them, they don’t have to be deleted. The closer you get to only receiving personal email in your inbox, the easier it will be to keep up with it

So these new mediums aren’t gunning to eliminate our old, old electronic friend – they’re just allowing it to go on a long overdue diet.

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