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November 17, 2007 / jnolen

The nostalgia machine, or kids today!

This Slate article about the "Death of Email" has been approvingly linked from a few different places — Fred Wilson being one, Thomas Hawk being another.

A few unrelated thoughts:

1. If you substituted "email" every time the author references IM and Facebook, and "letters" for email, you might have read this exact same article in 1997.

[Email is] best-suited for longer musings. As opposed to instant messaging, e-mail provides the breathing room to contemplate what we're writing and express nuanced thoughts. A well-tended e-mail inbox and outbox can serve as a sort of diary, an evolving record of your curiosities, obsessions, introspections, apologies, and heart-to-hearts….. While IMs and text messages have a throwaway quality, e-mail is for the sentimental. I still have some of the first flirtatious e-mails I exchanged with my wife in college. I have thoughtful monologues from friends in the midst of crises. I have e-mails from my parents that I envision showing to my children someday.

Haven't we been treated to a raft of articles over the last ten years complaining that email will be the death of thought, spelling, grammar and all civilized communication between adults? (Yes, we have — I'm just too lazy to Google for them right now.) And suddenly, thanks to the emergence of Facebook, Twitter and SMS, email has become the last vestige against the barbarian hordes who can only grunt into an 140-character SMS box? A veritable golden age of elegant correspondence? I think we in the tech industry forget our history too easily.

2. Why does no one seem to understand that these media (email, IM, twitter, Facebook) are good for totally different things? Email is good for one-to-one, private, asynchronous communication. IM and SMS are good for one-to-one, private synchronous communication. Facebook is best for many-to-many, public, asynchronous communication. And Twitter excels as many-to-many. public synchronous communication. See, I made a little table:

.datatable td { padding:5px 15px; text-align:left; }
.datatable th { padding:5px 15px; background-color:#efefef; text-align:left; }

Audience Time
Email one-to-one asynchronous
IM and SMS one-to-one synchronous
Facebook, et al. many-to-many asynchronous
Twitter, et al. many-to-many* synchronous

* As far as I'm concerned, direct messaging on Twitter is functionally the same as SMS or IM.

So why all the hand-wringing about one channel replacing another? Just use the right tool for the occasion.

3. This is not a new complaint, I hate applications that send email to let me know that "Bob has sent you a message", forcing me to visit the website to see the message. It's inelegant, annoying and wasteful. It's a feature that has been deliberately broken in order to support the needs to an insufficiently evolved business model.

If you're building an app that uses email, then do it right. Don't trick me into coming back to your site. Don't piss me off just to get one more worthless page view. Give me information I need in the email, and then give me a good reason to come back to your site.

And if you're a Facebook user, for example, don't use Facebook to send me a private message. My real email is right there. Use the right tool for the job.

P.S. Two blog posts in one day? I know! What's up with that?


  1. Zoli's Blog / Nov 17 2007 6:49 pm

    Email is Still Not Dead

    Yet-another-email-is-dead-article, this time on Slate. Its the same old argument: teenagers using IM, or increasingly SMS, and most recently Facebook instead of email which they find cumbersome, slow and unreliable – hence email usage will decli…

  2. Dan Hardiker / Nov 19 2007 10:58 am

    I hate applications that send email to let me know that “Bob has sent you a message”
    While I agree that the paradigm is very annoying it does have benefits inside of tracking systems, including status change emails from Atlassian’s own JIRA.
    For example, if the system was tracking an order and the notification is letting you know that it has been updated. If that information was sensitive (e.g. credit card for payment) then having that passed over email, which the system has no idea whether it is transmitted securely after the initial server posting or who is reading it ultimately, would be a bad thing.
    I guess it depends on the content of the source message, the motive behind securing it, and how secure you consider email to be.
    PS: I know this blog post was really targeting systems that are trying to pull you back in to their site for no other purpose than to get you to use their site more — but the same irritation arises when companies want to tell you that you have a new bank statement (etc) and you have to follow a link to get the information you would have preferred to have at your fingertips.

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