Is email dying?

Photo by TCMHitchhiker

Technologies die pretty frequently. When I first logged on in 1992, Usenet was the place to be, with thousands of high-quality, high-traffic discussions groups hosted on an open system. It’s very openness destroyed it as a mainstream technology, with first the Eternal September when AOL allowed access to a large group of people unfamiliar with the voluntary netiquette required to keep it functioning, and then the first Green Card Lottery spam that signalled the start of the battle against unsolicited ads on open networks. Usenet retains some bright spots, I still love rec.arts.sf.written for its quality and depth, but the vast majority of discussions now happen on website forums, and most users have never heard of newsgroups.

It’s tempting to see an analogy with internet mail. It’s another open system that suffers from bad actors abusing its lack of restrictions. Even with Gmail’s spam filter I still end up with about an email a month incorrectly marked as spam, and there’s no way to verify anyone’s identity, easily guarantee security or prioritize messages from people you know. This makes Facebook’s system very alluring if everyone you want to talk to is on there. Twitter is in an interesting space between IM and email too, with the potential for interesting consequences as people adapt to its rules.

A lot of the commenters on Seth’s post argue that traditional email isn’t ever going away because it has such a massive network effect advantage over any closed system. I don’t agree. I think that it will remain as the lowest common denominator of internet communication, but a new service like Facebooks that had a large user base could offer a high quality experience for proprietary communications but also fall back to internet mail for talking to anyone who’s not signed up. Even today most company’s Exchange setups offer extra features for internal communications, like a global address book allowing you to just type in a name rather than a full address.

The big reason I’m working in the email area is that writing notes to other people is never going away, but the existing options are very limited. Internet email is by social convention a private medium, and it’s non-realtime. IM is also private but real-time. Twittering is public and real-time. Blogging is public and non-realtime. At their heart they’re all about writing down your thoughts and communicating them to other people. So why can’t I take an interesting email discussion and add it to my blog? Email an IM discussion to someone else who might be interested, and seamlessly continue the conversation through both email and IM?

The need for private, non-realtime electronic messages isn’t going away, and internet mail will remain alive as part of that, but there will be an increasing number of services that offer a higher quality experience.

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