What if Email became an endangered species?

Below is a re-print and translation of an excellent article I read in the French newspaper Libération.  Written by Astrid Girardeau, its title is “Le courrier electronique” (“electronic mail”):

“Faced with the huge success of social networks and chat, email has been abandoned by young Internet users, and could disappear within the next ten years.  Seen as being too rigid, too slow, and lacking in instantaneousness—it seems that email has become outdated, and its days are numbered.  Even though these sorts of predictions come around every few years, today, in light of the boom of mobile Internet, social networks and the development of applications like Google Wave and Raindrops, email’s fade out seems all the more likely.

Is email for old people?  Could be: many studies show that the youngest Internet users are less and less interested in this form of communication.  According to a recently published report by the University of Kent, 86% of 15-24 year olds use email, compared to 98% of those 65 years old and older.  Of the 86% who use email, only 51% use it regularly.  The 15-24 year-olds polled stated that they preferred shorter and more rapid forms of communication such as chatting or mass messaging groups of people through services like Twitter and Facebook.  According to the professor David Zetilyn, who headed up this study, email was seen as too slow, unpractical and not “trendy” enough.  In The Wall Street Journal, technology reporter Jessica Vascellaro considers email “boring”.  For her, email relates to an older way to surf the Internet: connect, login and read a quantity of messages. Today, she feels that “being permanently connected has created faster and more fun ways to communicate”.

Compared to the telephone that, one, invaded your space by ringing and, two, forced you to respond, email allowed people to control their communications.  The recipient could decide when he wanted to read his messages and when he wanted to reply to them.  Yet according to Lev Grossman, author and co-founder of Time magazine’s “TechLand” blog, copying traditional mail was not born out of need, but out of a technical reality: the lack of bandwidth.  Now that bandwidth has been able to multiply, communication in real time has flourished.  “Yesterday asynchronous systems were our friends, today they are our enemies”, states Nicolas Carr, technology expert and essayist.  Are real-time only communications what we really want?  Are they feasible?  Carr doubts it: “We are led to believe that we are being offered the best of both worlds: the immediacy of the telephone combined with the easy diffusion of email.  We will soon find out that this model is actually the worst of both worlds.  Welcome to the never-ending conference call.”  The emergence and the wild success of social networking sites have placed conversation back in the public sphere.  One must be heard and read by the largest possible number of people.

This was already the case with blogs, through their articles and their associated comments.  Jessica Vascellaro sums up the situation by saying, “Instead of sending a few emails a week to a handful of friends, you can now send dozens of messages a day to hundreds of people who you (barely) know.”  Want to know if the last Coen brother’s movie is any good?  Need some tips on choosing a new computer?  Instead of contacting a selected few and waiting for their reply, just post the question on Facebook or Twitter and reach out to a whole network of contacts.  According to brothers Lars and Jens Rasmussen, creators of Google Wave, “email was based on the postal service and instant messaging on the telephone”.  In their opinion, we need to move on.  Combining elements of email, chat and wiki, Google Wave is more like a face-to-face conversation, pushing real time to a climax.  For instance, every letter typed is automatically visible to all participating in the “wave”.  Hailed as revolutionary by some, dismissed as a gadget by others, Google Wave is innovative but, by imposing too many new communications rules, it misses the boat.

So is email really passé?  If the fusion of our means of communications is not immediate, reorganizing these tools may be the next step.  Thus we see Mozilla with Raidrop, which centralizes mail, chats, social networks, RSS feeds, etc.  In spite of its perceived fustiness, email has remained, forty years after its initial development, useful and easy to use.  It is adaptable to conversations both personal and professional, it has entered into our daily routines and is not (yet) ready to leave.”

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