DorobekInsider: The era of e-mail is over — or ending, the WJS says — and we are terrified

The WSJ Monday featured a special technology section… and the lead story was about the end of e-mail.

Why Email No Longer Rules… [WSJ, Oct. 12, 2009]
And what that means for the way we communicate
Services like Twitter, Facebook and Google Wave create a constant stream of interaction among users—for better or worse.


Email has had a good run as king of communications. But its reign is over.


In its place, a new generation of services is starting to take hold—services like Twitter and Facebook and countless others vying for a piece of the new world. And just as email did more than a decade ago, this shift promises to profoundly rewrite the way we communicate—in ways we can only begin to imagine.

We all still use email, of course. But email was better suited to the way we used to use the Internet—logging off and on, checking our messages in bursts. Now, we are always connected, whether we are sitting at a desk or on a mobile phone. The always-on connection, in turn, has created a host of new ways to communicate that are much faster than email, and more fun.

Why wait for a response to an email when you get a quicker answer over instant messaging? Thanks to Facebook, some questions can be answered without asking them. You don’t need to ask a friend whether she has left work, if she has updated her public “status” on the site telling the world so. Email, stuck in the era of attachments, seems boring compared to services like Google Wave, currently in test phase, which allows users to share photos by dragging and dropping them from a desktop into a Wave, and to enter comments in near real time.

Little wonder that while email continues to grow, other types of communication services are growing far faster. In August 2009, 276.9 million people used email across the U.S., several European countries, Australia and Brazil, according to Nielsen Co., up 21% from 229.2 million in August 2008. But the number of users on social-networking and other community sites jumped 31% to 301.5 million people.

Read the full story here… and read the WSJ editor’s note about the piece here.

The story is good — and has started a wonderful conversation with more than 168 comments when I last checked — and most of them fairly angry and recalcitrant.

The WSJ story doesn’t fully capture why these other tools are expanding in popularity, particularly for businesses — it’s the collaboration aspect. Many of these tools tap into the ideas that all of us know more then each of us individually… and information is more powerful when it is shared.

I wrote about this in June in my Signal magazine column:

The First Step Toward Collaboration Is to Stop E-Mailing
E-mail works well for person-to-person communication but today there are better options.

And much of criticism of these new collaborative platforms is part of the reason why I think it is so important that we move away from the term “social media.”

There are corollaries here with the introduction of e-mail… and maybe even the introduction of the telephone. In my Signal column, I recalled when the General Services Administration, under then-administrator David J. Barram, was one of the first agencies to provide each and every person in the organization have e-mail — in fact, they made it a big deal and launched the initiative on Flag Day 1996. I remember covering this issue and I remember people asking, ‘Why would everybody need an e-mail account? Why would everybody need access to this InterWeb thing?’

GSA, thankfully, still has the press release online under the headline, “GSA Employees Join Super Information Highway through Intranet.”

That release, dated June 14, 1996, quotes Barram defining what the Internet even is. Really! How delicious is that?

The “Internet is known as the global communications network and it is being called by many experts the most promising avenue for business in existence today. Through the use of Internet, companies and government agencies worldwide are finding exciting new ways to serve their customers and communicate with each other.”

E-mail revolutionized the way we communicate… and e-mail definitely has a “social” aspect to it, but… it isn’t “social media.” It is a tool that enables organizations to do their job better and more effectively.

Unfortunately, since then, we try to use e-mail as a collaboration tool. (We send out these e-mails with 75 people cc’ed… and with some attachment. That attachment gets changed by individual people — and then we have to bring all those pieces together. Or even worse — when you are number 72 on the cc list and you may have been copied more as informational.

Today, there are better tools out there that enable real collaboration.

What is interesting are how people react to this changing landscape — mostly negatively.

Here is one comment on the WSJ piece by Jorge Diaz:

The 20 somethings (and younger) use Facebook as a tell all, as an “analog” generation guy, I find it unseemly, I don’t care about the kids’ dates, how much they drank, who they met, and so on, this is small-minded, tabloid stuff.

As an employer, facebook “history” reflects peoples character, I will not hire someone who lives an outrageous lifestyle away from work.

I have always found this assessment baffling — and, frankly, just uneducated. In fact, Facebook — or any of these tools — are not just about dating or how much they drink. And, in fact, it isn’t just kids. So this just sounds like somebody who refuses to try something new or different.

And I’ve never understood using collaboration and transparency as a bludgeon. The fact is that people do date and they do drink — and a lot of our lives are taken up by “small-minded, tabloid stuff.” So people are doing these things. This is really going to be the determining factor in hiring? Really?

Furthermore, people simply don’t talk about drinking or dating in their work environment out of context. (We are generalizing, of course, but… in general, it has been the case.) In fact, what one finds is that in work situations — enterprise 2.0 — people don’t talk about dating. They talk about work. It isn’t anonymous. It is work — so ones name is tied to what one is saying. People get that — and they take it seriously.

But there is also a real apples-to-oranges comparison that goes on with these tools. So Mr. Diaz, you are saying that none of your e-mail is about personal matters? There is no e-mail that involves “small-minded, tabloid stuff”?

I’d recommend you try some of these collaborative tools before you throw stones at them.

The other comment that struck me is this one by Jerry Cole:

Not for business. While at work, I don’t have time to watch or respond to people’s questionable quality chatter on all of these various services. Email lets me work in a disconnected fashion and respond “in bursts” when I am ready.

If you have time at the office to read about constant updates such as where a person is going to dinner, or who’s dating who then watch out, you might find yourself downsized.

Again, it seems like an apples-to-oranges comparison — there is a reason why people are connected to their CrackBerry. And I see people all the time who put their lives aside when their PDA buzzes with a new e-mail.

If you don’t like the information that people are sharing, then you are probably following the wrong people.

Over all, people’s fears seem disconnected from reality — people complain about e-mail, the amount they get, the number of unnecessary e-mails, their inability to keep up with it — and yet terrified of looking at new ways of doing business.

E-mail isn’t going away. What we’re talking about is using the right tool for the right purpose — and today, we have greater access to a wider variety of tools. I guess I remain baffled about why one would simply reject those tools outright.

Again, in my Signal magazine column, I challenged people to look at new ways of putting out information.  For managers, rather then sending out an e-mail blast, why not blog it? — put it out there for everybody to see and read and reference — and even discuss.