Is Email Dead?

Is social media killing electronic mail?

Email is Over,” proclaims The Awl‘s Choire Sicha.

Here is what is happening now: people have become unwilling to send emails. They’re too cumbersome, they’re too long and there’s actually not an app for that. And no one wants to type that long on their devices, plus they’re already logged in to their social medias and whatnots.

Here are some things that I have seen this week:

• People replying to my emails… by randomly putting their response on Twitter.

• People replying to emails… by way of AIM.

• People following up on emails that haven’t been answered yet… by Gchat.

• People sending messages on Twitter to ask what my email address is. Because of course you’d know the Twitter handle but not the email address, which used to be the most important thing in the world.

• Someone picking a fight on Twitter, and someone else was like, “Hey, let’s take it to email, here’s mine!”… but then they never emailed. They can’t! They’re too busy Tumblring and Twittering to send an email.

The Atlantic‘s Garance Franka-Ruta, who tweeted the link, agrees, adding, “It’s like the new voicemail.”

Now, I get that voicemail is dead. But email?

Indeed, the explanations given here dumbfound me.

  • An email can be as short or long as you want it to be. I frequently send emails that are shorter than a tweet. Some are subject lines with no body.
  • For most purposes, I’ve always found instant messaging annoying. Email’s asynchronous nature allows me to respond at my own leisure rather than being rudely interrupted.
  • I actually find emailing on my smartphone (currently an iPhone but even more true on my old BlackBerry) easier than tweeting. Twitter is great on my desktop, where I can have a client open in one of my monitors and glance at it occasionally. But TweetDeck is annoyingly small on my iPhone, requiring all manner of hoops to scroll and resize. By contrast, it’s super easy to read and reply to my Gmail account. And, yeah, there actually is an app for that.

Now, I’m still more desktop driven than the average 20-something. I don’t own an iPad and still use my smartphone primarily as an email device and, well, a phone. But email offers innumerable advantages to its more modern social media cousins. In addition to the aforementioned asynchronousity, it’s radically more flexible. And it’s more permanent, too, allowing me to find things from days, sometimes years, earlier with relative ease.

Social media is great and I use it much more than most of my generational cohorts. But Twitter, Facebook, and whatnot are social media, useful for communicating with a network of people at one time. And I’ll occasionally direct message someone that I know frequents Twitter, using it as something of a poor man’s IM. But email, which remains a comparatively private means of communication, is much more useful overall.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Science & Technology
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Matt says:

    With the other minor caveat that email is somewhat more secure than the stuff people blast out on social networks. I find Twitter to be a great deal of fun, but it’s not really a communications client. More like having email with no spam filtering.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    Do these people have jobs?

  3. Janis Gore says:

    Being an ancient (I turned 54 this year), I still find e-mail useful. But the young ones all do text messsages.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Janis:

    What’s weird is that I skipped texting altogether. I went from a really crappy cell phone that didn’t have texting to a BlackBerry. I don’t understand why you’d want to text — which is annoying and expensive — when you can just send and check emails on the same device.

  5. Janis Gore says:

    It’s technology!

  6. milprof says:

    I’ve heard some anecdotal reports from college faculty that they increasingly see undergrads who have never had an email address before getting their university address, and that even then they strongly resist emailing profs as opposed to text messages or Facebook messages.

    One ‘complaint’ I’ve heard about email is subject lines — apparently it makes them seem ‘formal’ and take longer to write than txt. I believe I read that Facebook has recently changed their message format to do away with subject lines, or somehow deemphasized them. Their data showed that a crazy high share of FB messages had blank subject fields or subject fields consisting of only “hi” or “hey”.

    I don’t get it either. I *like* subject lines, ditto the greater archivability and searchability of email — both a big deal if your life exists outside of the last and previous 30 seconds. Frankly, usable archives are important in faculty-student email exchanges in case grade disputes (or worse) arise.

    I don’t think it’s just that I’m a Luddite. I loved email when I got it as a student in the mid 80s, but never liked the instant-msg technologies that existed then, like IRC. Part of it is that I like complete sentences, but that apparently makes me a hopeless fuddy-duddy.

  7. Janis Gore says:

    Obviously, you’re a toad, milprof.

  8. Alex Knapp says:

    The people who write these stupid articles are people who don’t have real jobs.

    That said, I’m an old man of 31, but I usually have to take recent new grads through “Alex Knapp’s how to write a goddamned letter or e-mail boot camp” for the first few weeks after hiring. It’s annoying and I shouldn’t have to do it. If universities are going to turn into trade schools, they can at least teach how to compose business documents.

  9. Matt B says:

    The X tech will kill Y old tech, always seem to forget that technologies typically live for years, side by side, with the technologies that were supposed to replace them. Their relations just recalibrate.

    TV didn’t kill radio or movies.
    While email had greatly changed mail, the post office, and private shippers continue to function.
    Microwaves didn’t stop conventional ovens
    We’re in the midst of a Vinyl* and Letterpress revolution – both largely “dead” technologies in the 90’s (in the US)
    And while electronic readers and eBooks, will profoundly change our world, books are not going way

    * I should note that there is always some tech that dies — I doubt that we’ll ever see a 8-track revival, but I also think that may have more to do with the fact there should never have been 8-tracks to start with.

  10. george says:

    I’m assuming they mean socially and not professionally? A lot of the young engineers I work with don’t send a lot of personal emails; however they all use email professionally. In fact, I’m not sure how your typical chain of design related emails (with five to ten participants and including embedded documents – Word, CAD, Visio, Excel etc) would be handled over twitter or facebook, and most companies would be extremely upset to have proprietary documents discussed over social media even if it were possible.

    Though I suppose if cloud computing really catches on there might end up being a secure way of linking it with social media … though I also doubt many companies will end up going to cloud computing in the end either.

  11. Janis Gore says:

    In the social milieu, though, it make more sense to pay for an iPhone than that and a land connection to the Internet.

    Geez, I’m bored already.

  12. James Joyner says:

    Janis: I’m 45 and only have a landline phone because of 911 service.

    And that’s even though I’m in an area where cell coverage is surprisingly spotty.

  13. Janis Gore says:

    Y’all spotty? Sounds like interference to me.

  14. Janis Gore says:

    You’re in one of the most wired spots in the world.

  15. James Joyner says:

    You’d think, right? But, despite being in a densely populated area where everybody and his dog has a smart phone — many people have two, one for business and one personal — it’s NIMBY squared. We recently had a petition going around my neighborhood because Verizon wanted to build a cell phone tower near us that would have been well disguised as a tree. But idiots were worried about the radiation.

    Aaargh.

  16. Janis Gore says:

    That shouldn’t last long, do you think?

  17. Eric Florack says:

    Spam certainly turned a lotta folks off to email per se.

  18. Michael says:

    It’s hard to properly encrypt a message in 144 characters or less. Email still wins for me.

  19. Brett #2 says:

    Do these people have jobs?

    Exactly. E-mail is far from dead in white collar office workplaces, at least in my experience.

    Personally, I like the formality of e-mails for formal requests.

  20. deathcar2000 says:

    EMail is still the perfered means of corporate communication, unless u can xmit a budget proposal via SMS. or land a big$$$$ customer in 140 cartrs or less.

    let the twits twat their tawdry tweets till tomorrow, but some day they will have to grow up.