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Email Declining

I was chatting with a friend the other day about if email is really changing. Something I brought up was how hard it is to separate the signal from the “Twitter will replace email in 2012” hype.

The hard part is that mixed within with the hype, there is truth at work which may explain how social media and email will change the way businesses communicate.

Some studies that articles often quote relate to how young people talk with their friends using Facebook or SMS, and not by email (I can’t find a recent one off the top). It’s easy to imagine that something like this is going to have a big impact on where email is going, but they really don’t.

When I was growing up, email was never the dominant communications channel. As soon as we had computers, my friends and I would chat using ICQ, MSN, txt, and only more recently started using Skype, Facebook Messenger or other smartphone services (Beluga, WhatsApp). In the past 13 years that I’ve been IMing and texting with friends, email as a whole hasn’t gone anywhere. To say that now, Facebook chat and Twitter will replace email is just hype.

Stories that I like to read about on the topic of email are the ones where companies have put money on the line and implemented radical policies experimentally without a guarantee of their return. Things like going turning off email after work hours or disabling email altogether, forcing communication through SMS, phone, and face to face. I like these stories because while also providing more valuable data-points, they also remind me that so much of the discussion is only about the technology.

I think that the realistic opportunity to improve communications retains email, and it involves the convergence of people, technology, and medium.

So here’s what needs to change:

People

  • There needs to be empathy through awareness of other people’s jobs, and a better valuing of their time and attention.
  • Having “Communication Skills” needs to mean more than not making typos. It needs to involve the less talked about skills like editing.

Technology

  • Mobile doesn’t just mean having email on your phone, it means emails with only two words is socially accepted. Behaviours need to match the technology.
  • Integration is confusing. More data, more links, more smart options and suggestions hinders what in most cases would otherwise be a quick message. Technology should pursue qualities like seamless, invisible, and instant. If anything else, it creates the right mindset for communication to happen.

Medium

It can’t be just a coincidence that Sparrow has become one of the most popular Mac applications and that it tries to make email light, simple, fast, and fun. Those qualities sound a lot like what’s appealing about social media don’t they?

If I had to arrange the different communication mediums based on those four factors combined (because you can’t every actually separate them), I would put them in order from least to most like so:

phone > face-to-face > email > SMS > IM

The medium of email needs to change. It needs to move away from heavy, slow, complicated and tedious. We need to gamify email in the sense of making it seamless, simple, and rewarding.

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