It is ironic, and a sign of the times, that the two most interesting discussions in my office email (with many colleagues far smarter than me!) AND on my personal FaceBook page (with many friends even more opinionated than me!) are both about Email, and whether its time has come and gone.
My prediction: Email is here to stay. Here is why.
Everything has a time and place (and audience). Face to face, telephone, old fashioned hand-written letter, email, post, tweet, all have their uses and none of them really replace any of the others. As a matter of fact, they complement each other. They enable us to build deeper relationships leveraging these micro-contacts even when we are time-constrained and distance challenged.
I am all for social media. I love interacting with many among the nearly 10,000 people following me on Twitter (http://twitter.com/imrananwar if you’d like to connect), and nearly 10,000 more on FaceBook and Flickr. But it would be highly impractical to pull all of them into my “real” Address Book or inundate my EMAIL Inbox. The ones who become important to me on social networks are “upgraded” (or as they become real friends, colleagues, associates) to communicate with me via my “real email.”
BUT, here is something I like to point out to people who wonder if Social Media somehow will be a replacement for EMAIL? No!
What they are talking about is simply exchanging emails in much less robust, far less searchable, far less open, and far less secure, proprietary platforms of social media firms than traditional email systems.
Here is what that means….
We do not hold discussions with clients (or even personal family members) in newsgroups or mailing lists. We interact with them usually in one-to-one exchanges of messages sent in “electronic” “mail” called “EMAIL”.
The irony is that the “one on one” communications that takes place on Social Media (FaceBook, Flickr, you name it) is in one-to-one exchanges of messages just like traditional web-based email, that are exchanged out of the public eye, not on the Wall, not in the Timeline, not on a stream, but in specific areas, e.g. called Messages. And with far less flexibility, accessibility, security, or manageability.
In other words, using social media to “replace” Email simply means sending private "messages" on their platforms, simply email by another name!
Social media firms know email is, and likely will, remain the most used mechanism for one-to-one exchanges…. with the flexibility of multimedia multimodal multiple-use that even telephone calls do not offer.
FaceBook is even more obvious in showing its recognition of this fact, by forcibly inserting YourName@facebook.com as your default EMAIL address in the About > Contact Info page, until there was a huge outcry about it. Trust them to go back on their word… Even today they have NOT "fixed" the problem as they promised and most people's pages still show FaceBook.com addresses.
Even worse, for those of you daring enough to place their entire (email) stock in a social network, think about this…
You post something that FaceBook deems inappropriate, or if you send out 20 invitations to people and 10 are not accepted, the clerical-gods of FaceBook (and other networks too) may strike you with e-Lightning and cancel your account. If that happens, good luck recovering your email, or any of your content, from there.
With traditional email providers, even if, say, Yahoo shuts down one day (sorry, Marissa!), Hotmail migrates to Outlook.com, Gmail spying gets too intrusive, you can still easily drag your emails onto another provider/server/account/computer/device. You still “own” or have far greater control over your emails/messages in these “legacy” email approaches than you do, or likely will, in the social media sites’ Messages boxes.
The tragedy of “regular” email is that many great discussions like the ones I mention above, including those with actual knowledge transfers from smart people answering questions, are lost in email folders’ deep recesses forever. Mail apps and operating systems like Windows and OS X are getting better at helping us "spotlight" what we need to find, but it can still be a pain, especially in corporate mailboxes. Sometimes you can have 200+ email messages with the same keywords mentioned and poorly written subject lines (a pet peeve of mine) making it next to impossible to find THE particular email you are looking for with the answer to that complex question someone had answered 3 months ago.
In my humble opinion, detailed technical topics, with specific questions asked and many valuable replies sent (that are the majority of traffic on most companies internal email discussions) would be so much more effective, less intrusive, and more useful to others later, if they were held on suitably tailored Microsoft SharePoint or Wiki type collaboration platforms. So, yes, for that email is not the right tool. And the unnecessary traffic (plus resultant bloated mailboxes with each reply-all containing the last dozens of emails in each discussion, in every instance of each message, in all of our mailboxes!) give rise to the type of very discussion my Enterprise Architect colleagues are having.
When, over time, we are able to influence people to use collaboration tools where appropriate, social/mobile media (Yammer/Twitter/Lync/SMS) as practical or needed, somehow overcome a propensity to hit Reply-All on almost every email (another pet peeve ;-) ), get in the habit of writing better Subject lines (PLEASE, You can do better Subject lines than "Doc attached" or "Here it is" or the dreaded "RE:" !!), learn to judiciously delete previous body text not relevant or required, many of the reasons we complain about email would be reduced.
So, yes, it may shift platforms, take on new interfaces, become more “intelligent”, but Email is here to stay, regardless of what platform we exchange it on…..
What do you think? Email me!
Imran Anwar is a New York based Pakistani-American entrepreneur, Internet pioneer, inventor, writer and TV personality. His day job is with the world's best software company, but these opinions are his and his alone. He can be reached through his web site http://imran.com . You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/imrananwar
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