I had an interesting exchange of views with Aditya Kothadiya following his excellent blog post Personal Email has become more of a Notification Medium and less of a Communication Medium.
Actually Aditya’s post made me think about several recent opinions expressed about the death of email, which seem to have been triggered by the raise of Facebook and Facebook’s announcement that they are adding an email feature to their services. Obviously we feel strongly about this, just having founded a business that claims to create value by optimising the use of email!
After thinking it over, my conclusion is that email is far from dead. Even if a lot of interactions will no longer go through email, but through more interactive, social-media channels, a lot of stuff will continue to arrive in the inbox. Now if you think about that remaining stuff and ask the question “is this really email and what is it doing in my inbox?” it opens up a whole new discussion. Many items in our inbox are there because it is convenient to have them there and no other or better medium is available. So, maybe with another improvement in our tooling, email is really doomed?
Are you sure you want to keep this (yes/no)?
During the discussion with Aditya, I came to the conclusion that there is a key distinction between communication where the message is important enough to keep and communication where the message can be disposed of after reading. This, in turn leads to the distinction between email as a communication medium, a tool that transports information, versus email as a repository, a tool where we store information. This distinction was a key point in Aditya’s post (hence the title) and it also links back my earlier post about reasons to file: we use email as a knowledge repository.
If Aditya is right that the pure communication aspect of email (the cases where I want to interact with somebody, but where there is no need to keep the message) will decrease and be replaced by communication through social networking, we should see the email overload problem decreasing immediately. This links back to one of my older posts, where I stated that part of the email overload problem is caused by a perverse long tail effect. The fact that certain communication will no longer flow through our inbox will decrease the number of emails that need to be treated even if they contain no important information, which will certainly decrease the workload for cleaning the inbox.
The Swiss Army Knife
It gets more interesting if you take this a step further. If there are only a few “disposable” emails left in your inbox, it implies that the other ones are valuable and that you want to keep them. So, on the one hand the use of email will decrease in favour of social media type communications, while on the other hand it will continue to be used for more important communications that require some form of record-keeping, something for which email wasn’t designed in the first place! The reason they are there is because email is so low threshold and versatile, so it’s the Swiss Army Knife of electronic interactions.
The questions is would you use your Swiss Army Knife to open a ten year old bottle of Bordeaux if you have a real corkscrew available?
I think that email’s fate is in our (I mean the technology people) hands. By that mean that as soon as better universal repositories become available, email will disappear overnight. We will be left with packaged, universally accessible information, being exchanged and processed by smart readers and stored in evolved repositories.
In that case the only role for email would be to transfer these documents from one repository to another and for these exchanges there are already better and more reliable technologies available today. So in that scenario, email is indeed doomed…