I’ve been thinking about social web stuff a lot today. The good folks at Nemo Designs were good enough to have a long chat with anners and me about their social interweb. But that’s just the setup, I’m not really going to go into that…it was interesting though.
What I wanted to hit on is the kids and their lack of email! Which is something that’s come up in conversation, and it came up sometime after the aforementioned meeting, but not during. So the argument that I hear goes something like this:
- Email is going away.
- Because kids don’t use email.
- Yeah, they’ve studied kids and they use facebook and twitter and stuff and they don’t even have email accounts.
So, my response is…So what? I mean, did you have a mailing address as a kid? I don’t recall getting much mail. And most of it was highly temporal, non-transactional information. Birthday cards, Ranger Rick, um, I think that’s about it. I was way ahead of my time and couldn’t stand sending letters because the transit time was ridiculous and I didn’t want to pay for a stamp.
My point is not that email is great, or that it’s going to last forever. My point is that saying email is going away because a bunch of kids on myspace don’t use it is a totally irrelevant argument.
So what are the different types of communication? Here’s a partial list off the top of my head.
- synchronous – a conversation in realtime
- asyncronous – a message to somebody who can reply at leisure (or not at all)
- transactional – bills, email confirmations
- situational – “I’m feeling happy!”
- informational – generally one-way (though commentable, or expandable).
- social – coordinating or communicating withing a group
- temporal – messages with only a brief value
- eternal – messages with long-term value. Hopefully your hard drives survives for an eternity.
So there’s a short list of possible types of email communication. With overlaps.
While it’s difficult (or impossible or wrong) to generalize, let’s go ahead and do it.
A lot of purposes for email will be superseded by alternate means of communication. Evite’s days are numbered. There are far better means of communicating temporal messages than email. Twitter reminders, Google Calendar, Facebook. Depending on the the audience, there are faster, easier, less invasive, and more accessible ways to communicate short-lived information than email.
Transactional and eternal information, on the other hand is well-expressed in email. It is easily archived. Email is a communication method around which it is easy to apply a workflow, something which is useful for transactional information.
While there may well be a better way to handle transactional messages in the future, the existence of process and workflow around email really helps its value.
Other qualities of email that add value in this category are its mobility (you’re crazy if you’re still tied to an ISP) and its uniqueness. Of course, we can wait to see what services will be tied to an OpenID.
Personally I find email to be an imperfect solution. Mostly, I blame myself and clients. Actually, I kinda miss mutt. But if we’re going to talk about replacing email, I have to say that just because the kids don’t use it, I don’t care. We need to take a step back and see what the types of communication are, ask ourselves if the solution is really broken, then look at the problem and solve it from that perspective.
The real problem isn’t with email, it’s that email has been saddled with too heavy of a burden. After all, one of email’s greatest strengths is also its most annoying quality: anyone can send you an email.
Will sending an email invitation someday be the social equivalent to pulling out an Atari 2600 at a party?