Saturday, October 17, 2009

The death of email: Huh?

The office building where I work has hot and cold running news on a screen in the hallway (except when the screen shuts off from overheating in the closed wooden frame that holds it). A couple of days ago it showed a story on the reported death of email. Cause of death: online "member communities". Hmm ... communities with members in them ... must be one of those web 2.0 things.

That seemed like good Field Notes material, so I went searching. Turns out email has died a couple of times already, for example in 2007, and in 2006, and in 2004 ... the trail gets a bit harder to follow past that due to link rot, but a bit more googling indicates that the idea has been around since the turn of the millennium. Naturally enough, the end of email has been predicted for even longer -- here's a page from 1998 debunking the idea that Microsoft (of course) was going to bring about its demise. [Googling "death of email" is still good for a number of hits, including at least one talking about an email "renaissance" -- hmm ... I'd be worried about that last one --D.H. Dec 2015].

Clearly a bit of skepticism is in order.

What's the evidence this time? It seems to be a recent Nielsen study reporting that more people belong to "member communities" than have email. OK ... does the study mention anything at all about trends in email usage? Of course not. Why should it? It's a study of "member communities" that happens to make a particular comparison of user bases in passing. Does Nielsen claim email is dying? Of course not.

Further, the "member communities" designation looks fairly broad. It doesn't just include the usual social networking suspects like FaceBook, MySpace, Orkut, LinkedIn and so on. It also includes blogging. Yep, if you're reading this blog, you're killing email. Like I said, take it with a grain of salt.

The next obvious question is, what actually is happening with email? That question doesn't seem to yield so quickly to googling, and Wolfram Alpha unfortunately lists it as a "future topic". One difficulty is that the measurement tends to be done by people trying to do email marketing, who probably have a predisposition to aim high. I'm not so much interested in whether there's more or less spam than before. If spam went away tomorrow leaving only actual email and some small residue of legitimate marketing, that would indeed be a renaissance, not a death.

In any case, I'm pretty sure email isn't dead, and I'm even more sure that the Nielsen report has no bearing on the question.

One interesting bit did catch my attention, though. Google's Orkut seems to be doing quite well in its target market of Brazil [Orkut has since been shut down --D.H. Dec 2015].

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