The future of e-mail

Fred Wilson recently posted this about the future of e-mail. His comment is a very VC-like pronouncement about the end of some era or other. His pronouncement is about the death of e-mail, or at least, its reduced usage in the coming era. The essence of his post is captured in this statement:

"Eventually every technology is trumped by something new and better. And I feel that email is ready to be trumped. But by what?"

Seeing as how I'm a big fan boy of his, I decided to post my first response ever. In the midst of posting that response, I figured that I should probably put the response down on my own blog and kill two birds with one stone. Here it is:

I think you're partially right. In the future, we will probably communicate via a collection of technologies. But I'm pretty sure that e-mail will be one of them, along with traditional phone calls, text messaging, and all that jazz.

I think that what's going to happen is a continuation of a current trend - different services will increasingly be used for highly specialized forms of communication that fit different needs. To clarify, these services have been dividing themselves up along a few axes - voice vs. text, one-way (sort of) vs. two-way, message length, assumed timeliness of response, number of recipients, etc. As user adoption increases, we'll start using the different services as tools that can be used interchangeably, depending on our current communicative needs.

This is already happening now. For example, text messages are a two-way channel with limited message length and assume a high level of responsiveness (although not quite as high as an actual phone call). Twitter is similar, but it's a one-way channel, assumes virtually no response at all, and can be blasted to a huge number of recipients. They each serve very different needs - you wouldn't try to remind your wife to pick up the kids via Twitter anymore than you would want to use text messaging to tell *all* of your friends that you're hanging out at Central Park.

The "axes" could certainly be refined, and will almost certainly change with technological development (e.g. blackberries have changed everyone's assumptions about a person's accessibility via e-mail). There's probably an unspoken social etiquette component out there that needs to be addressed. All the same, I think this is a valuable way of thinking about the evolving landscape of communications.

That being said, I think that e-mail is going to evolve - it's not going to go away. It is a perfect fit for a set of communicative needs and will thus have to stay in the game. The current problem that it's facing is a volume problem, and all of the other two-way communication mediums will eventually run into that same problem as they gain acceptance. This is a surface problem, and is not a fundamental defect of e-mail as a form. If anything, it just calls for more advanced filtering services (much like Caller ID or a good receptionist).

My guess is that social networks will serve as one of multiple filtration layers that go on top of e-mail and other services, rather than functioning as an entirely separate channel in and of itself. I'd also be surprised if someone didn't start gathering data on the types of messages that the user reads most frequently (a la Google Reader's trends) and then put together a predictive "flagging" feature that would tell the user that they should probably read certain messages first.
But I certainly don't see e-mail going away, anymore than I think that phone calls will go away. It serves too great of a purpose.



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