Friday, October 16, 2009

Email: Obsolete?

By now we're all familiar with the imminent death of newspapers, the imminent death of CDs, the imminent death of television, etc. But the other day I came across an idea that I'd never considered: the imminent death of email. That got my attention.

Email went mainstream only fifteen years ago, but it's now an essential part of daily life; to imagine it being completely replaced (already?!) is bizarre. But this article has almost convinced me that email's days really are numbered; the writer has some interesting arguments, at least . . .

To begin with, email is apparently too slow for the modern internet, because it's not instantaneous. Email is stuck in the 1990s – deep down, it's still expecting you to be on dialup:
. . . email was better suited to the way we used to use the Internet—logging on and off, checking our messages in bursts. Now, we are always connected . . .
And that's why, according to the article, email is steadily being superseded by various kinds of instant messaging and chat (not to mention Twitter and Facebook). The last time you wanted to tell somebody something over the internet, did you actually use your email? Or did you just update your Facebook status?

The other big problem is email's lack of finesse. We're all dealing with more information than we actually have time to read, so we need good ways to classify and sort everything – #hashtags and meta-data, blog labels, threads. Email doesn't really allow for that. Also, we now have various personal profiles associated with our presence on the net – extra information and context about ourselves, which is a kind of "passive" communication – and email doesn't really allow for that, either.

This is why, for example, Google are setting up their Wave: a new system that's supposed to combine the functionalities of email, instant messages, social networking and collaborative documents (a.k.a. wikis) into one supreme package. When I first heard about the Google Wave I was sceptical (and also slightly . . . concerned), but the more I think about it, the more useful (and plausible) it all seems.

Is this really going to happen? Will email be completely abandoned within our lifetimes? Is it going to matter, either way?

Also: should we be worried that Google knows everything about us and is building artificially intelligent supercomputers?

Image © 2002, C2 and its related entities. Via Google Image Search ;)


  1. If everything were instant, we wouldn't be able to mull over that cover email to a new employer for hours, tactfully suggest someone get lost, or tell our mums we didn't get their message because we haven't checked our inbox. Could you imagine trying to get work done if a dozen people were clamouring for your attention over your Wave account? Ugh...
    I watched the developer preview of Wave at I/O 2009 (on YouTube, I wasn't there) a few months ago. It looks pretty rad, Google Technology is mind boggling. I definitely think we should be worried about the Google machine knowing us so well - in the future they'll be able to market at YOU. Directly. Using all the things you're interested, so you're helpless as a kitten when it comes to those periodic tables of editing symbols. : )

  2. I agree that it email is possibly becoming obsolete. Now I only ever use my email to write a cover letter to an employer, to get some information clarified by a tutor or to store my assignments in for easy access.

    I cannot remember the last time I wrote an email to a friend - perhaps when I had some e-penpal phase in 2004. Facebook and my phone are my only tools for that purpose.

  3. @steph: I spend hours mulling over emails, too, but I don't know if that actually improves them . . . !
    Also, I'm not so worried about hyper-targeted marketing. Every time the ads get more sophisticated, more people get better at seeing through them! I had a long rambling thought about this, a while ago.
    Tell Google Ads to bring it on, I can take 'em ;)

    @sarasi: yeah, me too! I used to email friends of mine when they were living on the other side of the world, but Facebook messages have replaced all that.

    Maybe in a few years we'll be sending job applications and uni assignments over Facebook or Wave, instead of via email? I guess it's certainly possible. Twenty years ago, who could have imagined the internet as it is now?

    On the other hand, in a few years maybe we'll all be using atomic-powered telepathy. (I tell you what, it'd be about time. Radioactive mind-reading has been overdue for decades.)