Monday, 15 September 2014

Pressing that 'send' button....

'Mail Box' by zizzybaloobah
under a CC license
E-mail is nothing new. Actually, in terms of internet communication means, it is rather a dinosaur of communication.

Since e-mail's first steps in the '70s, lots have happened both to e-mail as a technology, itself, and its competing internet-based communication services. In 2012, the 3 main web-mail providers had over a billion users with Google leading the race. So far, e-mail looks as if it is here to stay for the decades to come. But do we really need it?

Back at e-mail's early days, it was soon understood that if e-mail would be any good for communication, it needed to be able to offer interoperability among networks, servers and clients. It achieved that following a development course strongly based on a series of (then) emerging standards, each adding new capabilities to the service. Thus, the early text-only services can now support attachments, formatting, multimedia contents, different recipient groups, etc.

E-mail was designed to emulate the classical snail-mail exchange in the digital world. Some of the associated terminology reflects that (e.g., CC). That is not necessarily a bad thing because, well, people do need to exchange information in an affordable, flexible, reliable and resilient way - I'm talking about information that would normally be delivered by snail mail some years before.

At this point, it would be useful to look at what people tend to do online. The following infographic (2012) can give us a few clues:

How People Spend Their Time Online
Infographic by- GO-Gulf

E-mail/ communication is a strong factor, taking some 19% of the online time. Social media, however, are ahead with 22%. Plus, the trends shown concern service niches well away of e-mail communication.

E-mail use seems to be declining amongst teens, who seem to favour instant messaging. E-mail seems to look a bit too formal and needs more time between typing the message and being ready to press 'send'. In fact, in several instant messaging services (e,g,, Skype) there is no 'send' button - the user can just press 'Enter'.

Personal experience also suggests that the bulk of my e-mail use could easily be replaced by instant messaging. I've caught myself using e-mail as an instant-messaging client from time-to-time, pressing 'reply', typing just a few words and pressing 'send', often 'forgetting' to change the subject line or re-check the recipients. From time-to-time, I also use e-mail as a 'mini-forum' service, exchanging comments with a small group of people. To be honest, that last thing often gives ground to considerable off-topic-discussions, with the occasional (polite) trolling but that happens when using personal e-mail so I guess it's OK.

Despite all those indications of e-mail's weaknesses, its biggest strengths are flexibility, acceptance and standardisation. All three are boring stuff but, really, they make a difference:
  • E-mail is flexible in the sense that one can use it for short or long messages, to one or more recipients, with any formatting, attachments, etc. Contrary to that, most instant messaging solutions (Skype, WhatsApp, etc.) are much more limited in terms of formatting, message size, attachment options and recipient groups.
  • Most likely recipients have an active e-mail address (businesses, public bodies, individuals, etc.). The same doesn't apply to instant messaging services (that thing with google+ and its messaging capabilities is a different story to user handles instead of e-mail addresses is a different story). Further to that, e-mail communication is considered as a formal means of communication in an increasing number of countries and organisations. Instant messaging services have the aura of 'informal' and 'casual'.
  • At the technical level, e-mail services are well established. One can use any e-mail client to address any recipient and the chances are that the recipients will receive and be able to read the original message as the sender intended (most of the times, at least). If delivery fails for some reason, the system tells the sender what went wrong. Contrary to that, there is no true 'universal' instant messaging service. People tend to be restricted with the social medium of their choice.
So yes! We still need e-mail. While not impressive  anymore, it does what it does quite well. And by forcing us to press that 'send' button, it provides us some time to reflect on what we are about to send. The latter can be life-saving under many circumstances.

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