Can We Kill Email?

One of the most interesting discussions I had in San Francisco two weeks ago (where I was co-presenting Mobile 2.0 and the Mobie Tech 4 Social Change camp) was with Brian Fling on the unlikely subject of email. We both agreed that we hate email (a common sentiment these days) and that something needed to be done. I don’t know a single person who actually doesn’t roll their eyes these days when the subject of email comes up. Kids these days already refer to email is “something I use when I want to communicate with old people.” Ouch!

Email as a medium is not keeping up with how we interact, how we do our jobs, how we live in the modern world. It’s overtaken by spam (encouraged by its nature as an open and free medium and the relatively little it costs to send out emails in bulk). It has no intrinsic trust mechanism (and developments like sender policy framework are basically a band-aid and do not address personal trust circles, only whether an email is from where it purports to come from). Email has no intrinsic semantics that allow email clients to do anything useful with them. Even advanced email clients can do little to help with this mess. Email is actually follows a typical trajectory for innovation. In the book Why Things Bite Back, Edward Tenner takes us through a history of technological innovation and why some innovations have “unintended consequences.” The unintended consequences of Email have become all-to-clear: lost time, “inbox anxiety,” spam and “BCC cultute” are only some of them. My view is that email is fundamentally mismatched with an “always connected” world – and these days we are always connected – and it’s been hopelessly outpaced by the far more powerful social paradigms of social networks. Email is a monster which has grown to enormous proportions and which we are all spending our time feeding, to the detriment of our real lives. Email can also be ambiguous. I receive so much email that I have to filter my CCs into a separate folder which I don’t look at as often – but then people will CC me on a message that requires my urgent attention and get annoyed when I don’t respond right away. Email woes are accentuated by the fact that no significant innovation has happened in the world of email clients in 10 years.

Imagine a life without Email.

Need to get in touch with a friend?  Use Twitter “direct message.” It’s much more difficult for you to be spammed, because you control who connects to you. Bonus: you have to be terse. Need a longer conversation? Use Skype or another IM solution. Need to send someone a file? Again – IM. More immediate and you KNOW the recipient has received it. How about you need to arrange a meeting or a drinks out?  Social networks provide all the mechanisms you need for this. Need to share a file with a large number of people?  Use a Web-based sharing service like Google Docs or Zoho and then alert them using one of the means above.

Ok – technically most of the services mentioned above require access to an email account (for registration and identity verification). Zipiko is an example of one that doesn’t – you can sign up with only a mobile number.

I imagine an email-free world as a kind of utopian existence where people no longer spend hours and hours of their time each day “clearing their inbox” or methodically filing mail away into meaningless folders. Close your eyes and visualize it with me.

Crazy? Someone at IBM is already living the dream.

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10 Comments on “Can We Kill Email?

  1. Sorry but that’s about the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard.

    Why should we kill a technology that billions of people are familiar with, that is totally ubiquitous, an accepted open standard, free and btw: much more convenient than all of the alternatives you listed in your article…

    Don’t even try to explain twitter to ordinary people. That’s totally hopeless, because no one sees a point in being ever connected, except of the blogosphere.

    Still living in the 2.0 bubble?

  2. Hey Dan, you know my loathing of email :) I see email now as more of method of notification. Most emails I get these days tell me something has been changed. It could be a post to a forum, a change on a wiki, a request to go and do something on a social network, a friend request and so on … but most of them lead me back to something that has context and meaning. I hate the endless email trails, the poor email clients, the people that hide important information amongst trivia and so on. Perhaps the future of email is just to notify? But we dont really need the whole complexity of email to do this job :) Something to chew on.

    Cheers, Alex

  3. Sounds intriguing… but is there really a difference between an e-mail and a twitter direct message?

    E-mail is the “oil” of business today: we recognize that we need energy independence, but we keep pumping oil into our cars, and will for many years to come. Is there a way I can buy a solar car (or even a hybrid) and still get work done at a company where the other 99,000 employees rely on the gas-guzzler?

  4. I agree that we need something to replace email. I think TrulyMail is a good solution. It does not try to bandaid over the problems with email but is built from the ground up with support for trust circles, etc.

    Instead of email, think asynchronous messaging. The reason everyone uses email today is that they don’t see a better solution. When they do (see reference above) they will move away from email and we will have a much better way to communicate.

    Using synchronous messaging (like Skype) to do the job of asynchronous messaging (like email) cannot be a good idea (if I turn off my computer, the other party does not receive my IM on Skype).

    I need to be able to send someone a message, which they can read even when disconnected (like on an airplane) and reply at their convenience. I do need to know that they got my message, which is another great failure of email today.

    So, we do need something different but there are options out there. We just need more people to make the move.

  5. To add to my earlier comments, email sums up what I would call the ‘somebody elses problem’ culture. When I send you an email, you have to sort it, moderate it, filter it, organise it and so on. In a more social, shared culture the person sending would already do this … I would just opt to keep it or not. It is also a problem with sites like Google docs, when they say it is all about indexing things and search, it relies on the creator providing context and meaning (yeah right google!). I dont like tools where the creator/user can broadcast something to lots of other people and then its their problem of how to handle it, thats spam … bit like leaving a fart in a lift :)

  6. As you said – email is for old people.

    Many have fled conventional email already in favour of closed-garden email – such as facebook. Many of my friends now keep in touch with me through facebook email then conventional.

    Twitter doesn’t have critical mass yet -but SMS certainly does and achieves the same thing – short messages directly to the right person without having to cut through a sea of spam.

  7. Did you ever think that perhaps not everyone (even those employed in technology and media spheres) are so enamored with facebook or myspace? Not everyone wants to be plugged into a space where all of one’s personal and business contacts are clearly laid out? Some people still value privacy, and the only folks I know who feel as though they have to check in or even be registered with a web community are single people looking to hook up and losers who never got married.

  8. I can’t believe I’m posting a comment here, and I realize this is basically a dead thread, but — Dan, I have to disagree with you. Email does serve a real purpose for a lot of people. Maybe not the purpose you want it to, but if *I* am writing something in defense of email, then that’s got to be significant in and of itself.
    Anything that allows for coherent paragraphs to be written using real words has to have something said in its defense.

  9. You know, the more I sit in a “corporate” setting, the more I agree with this meme. Email really should be lessened to certain types of contact, not all, and definitely not as an introductory medium.

    SMS and IM are better for a lot of what constitutes communication in the text-based medium.

  10. You realize you have made email mandatory to leave a comment? Even the young people…..

    This article assumes we want to replace one time waster with many.

    No thanks. Call me old, but I prefer dealing with the tangible – you know, in real life – than spend any more time sucked into the virtual reality vortex.

    Young people are getting fatter too. Doesn’t mean it’s smart (but it may be related).

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