E-mail Is Dead. Long Live ????

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said, “Email – I can’t imagine my life without it – is probably going away”. According to Sandberg “only 11% of teens e-mail daily”; her thesis being that whatever teens are doing today is what the rest of us will be doing tomorrow.

Her first question to the audience was if anyone had handwritten a letter in the last 24 hours. Not surprisingly no one admitted to using that “archaic” means of communication. This is as misleading a question as asking the audience if they had hitched the horses up to the carriage themselves on their way to the conference. It’s a classic misdirectional tool often used to great effect, in this case to position her next question.

Her next question received a near-unanimous show of hands from the audience: who had sent an e-mail in the last 24 hours? Again, no surprise there.

She didn’t go as far as to try to segment the different types of e-mail that audience members sent. But, given the context of the talk and the nature of her employer, it’s safe to say that what she was getting at is that e-mail as a means of social communication among teens is fairly low. This is fair if you think about it, but hardly groundbreaking news. Teens’ social arsenal already contains Internet messaging and SMS; Facebook added an easy means to share other media such as videos and articles, and added “commenting/liking” as its social extension. The nature of social interaction has changed as well, from long Victorian-style epistles, to 140 characters or less between 2 people (SMS) or broadcast to tens of thousands (twitter). Why write an e-mail, which is a less-than-ideal mechanism for short exchanges, when the other methods more closely mirror current (shallow) social trends? Or is it the tools that have created the shallowness of social interactions? I think I’ll leave that for others to explore…

What happens when these teens enter the “information workforce”? Will they tell their bosses that they won’t use the company’s e-mail system (even given the entry of social networking systems inside the enterprise, e-mail will remain indispensible in corporate communications)?

Does Sandberg expect that we will soon route all our communications through Facebook? Facebook’s communications utilities work fairly well for the superficial nature of the site: messaging, chat, and status/newsfeed. These mechanisms exist elsewhere, and certainly in better form.

Now, I want each of you to go to a mirror and say the following to yourselves: in place of e-mail I will send all personal and business communications, including confidential documents, personal pictures and financial information, through Facebook.

If you can say that with a straight face you probably know how to use misdirection very well…

So is this the end of e-mail?

Nah.

There is a lot of room for innovation in e-mail. Think of it as the “other Internet”. The problem is that it’s been stagnating for a long time, to the point where many people can’t envision any discontinuous innovation, merely trying to patch up the myriad holes in an almost 40 year old system (not that there’s anything wrong with 40-year olds). Focus has been elsewhere, but so much can be done with the “other Internet”. In the future I hope to share some thoughts with you.

I’ll leave you with one thought: if Facebook thinks that e-mail is going away, then why is it that the only way you can get a Facebook account is if you have an e-mail address?

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