Stop predicting the death of email (or anything else)

If you’re considering writing an article predicting the death of some form of dominant technology, please read this first.

Technologies seldom just die. Instead, they tend to do two things:

  1. Evolve
  2. Become refined

The evolution of technology is obvious: televisions get bigger, computers get faster, phones become more powerful. But it’s the refinement of technologies that throw people off and lead them into misinterpreting trends. One of the most obvious (and annoying) examples is email.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people predict the death of email (usually because it makes a good headline, or a shocking interjection during geeky conversation). As is the case with all absolutes, this is a terrible oversimplification.

Rather than saying that email is dying because of Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging, texting, etc., I think it’s more accurate to say that electronic communication is being refined. Whereas email (and later, IM) used to be the only mechanisms we had to communicate electronically, we now have several more options, all of which work slightly differently and meet a slightly different need. I believe these differences are complementary rather than competitive.

Service Communication Method Properties
Email Asynchronous
(no immediate response expected)
  • Secure (if done properly)
  • Easy to archive
  • Relatively open (anyone can email you)
  • Medium priority (sometimes ignored)
Instant Messaging Synchronous
(immediate response expected)
  • Responses are typically very fast
  • Tightly controlled network (buddy lists, rosters, etc.)
  • High priority (difficult to ignore)
Twitter Publish and subscribe –
open network
  • Completely open network (subscribe to anyone you want)
  • Extremely casual (say things you’d never bother to put into an email)
  • No response expected or required
  • Low priority (easy to ignore)
Facebook Publish and Subscribe –
closed network
  • High level of control over network
  • High discoverability (easy to find people)
  • Low commitment (communicate with people you wouldn’t normally email or call)
Texting (SMS) Asynchronous
(but with a synchronous expectation)
  • Highly available (almost anyone is reachable no matter where they are)

Personally, I use all of the communication mechanisms listed above, and I use them for very different purposes. I’m not about to start communicating with business contacts and colleagues exclusively through Twitter (even though my Twitter URL is on my business cards), or send out a white paper via SMS, or CC 500+ people on an email with a simple status update (“just had my first cup of coffee this morning”). In other words, while electronic communication continues to be refined, none of these forms of electronic communication is likely to die in the immediate future.

One trend in particular that leads to people to conclude that email is dying is the fact that young people are less likely to use it. If your kids look at you funny when you tell them to email something to you, you might make the mistake of assuming that they will cary that prejudice with them throughout life. Maybe they will, or maybe they just don’t have a need for email yet. The day will eventually come when they will probably rather email their thesis to their professor than post it on their Facebook wall.

When talking about the death of technology, it’s important to separate the technology — or the use of the technology — from the implementation. Yes, VHS is mostly dead, but it might be more accurate to say that the implementation of how people record and watch video has evolved to DVDs, Blu-ray, DVRs, portable devices, and streaming video.

The last thing I’ll say is that some technologies certainly do die. For instance, it’s possible that satellite radio will completely go away someday (possibly very soon). But I would argue that these are technologies which really didn’t make much sense in the first place, and never really reached critical mass (both in numbers, and in psychological acceptance). In my mind, email makes a huge amount of sense. I use it very differently than I used to, and I believe that in 5 to 10 years, I will use it very differently than I do today, but I’m pretty sure I will still have a need that only email (or whatever email evolves into) will meet.

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