There’s been a lot of talk about the death of email. The general theme seems to be that young people don’t use email anymore, they just communicate through FaceBook or Twitter or some other social media tool. And while I agree that social media tools are in fact better for some types of social interactions, they won’t kill email. The reasons are two-fold: First, some interactions are inherently individual-to-individual and that is a mode of interaction that email supports completely naturally. Second, and more important, email software has evolved to be inherently user-centric. That is, email software is excellent at letting me do what I want with email, and letting me do it in a straightforward way. Here are three examples of this:
- Deletion – I just got a message from my the HR department. It’s full of the usual badly chosen metaphors and bland exhortations to seek excellence. They think this is important and, if it were left up to them, I’d continue to see it and absorb its profundities forever. But in the land of email, I’m in control. I can just delete that message and it need never trouble me again. Email lets me decide what is important.
- Organization – How I organize email is totally up to me. I’ve seen people who just leave everything in their inbox and depend heavily on the markup that indicates whether they have read a message or not. I like to create folder hierarchies, and file emails away into what I consider to be the “right” place. In GMail, you can create various tags and use them to help you structure email. GMail even has some heuristics built in to try and identify important emails. There are lots of different email clients out there, and they support a wide diversity of individual approaches to managing email. Email lets me organize things the way I want.
- Tasks – Most email clients make it easy to flag emails or turn them into tasks with reminder dates and various other features that help one priortize one’s day. I personally use my inbox as a task management system. As soon as I have finished with an email, I file it away somewhere (often the circular file). So all that’s left in my inbox is stuff that requires me to do something. You can tell how overloaded I am just by looking at how many items are in my inbox. As with organizing email, there are many email clients that support a variety of personal styles. Email lets me prioritize my activities the way I want.
I think these capabilities are significant. I haven’t seen any social media platform that gives me as much control as email does. Social media has its place. It’s excellent at supporting group communication. It works well as a way of highlighting new information and encouraging discussion. But it hasn’t killed email and it won’t until it delivers the sort of user-centric experience that email provides.