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Summary:

Amazon Web Services evangelist Jeff Barr proposes that we might move beyond email some day: I am starting to think that there may be such a thing as a post-email era, a time when we have forgotten about the entire concept of an Inbox, when there’s […]

Amazon Web Services evangelist Jeff Barr proposes that we might move beyond email some day:

I am starting to think that there may be such a thing as a post-email era, a time when we have forgotten about the entire concept of an Inbox, when there’s no such thing as catching up, and when more of our time and energy can be used in a more productive fashion.

Could we really get beyond email? It just might happen: younger people don’t have the dedication to email that baby boomers and gen Xers do. Social media researcher danah boyd considers email dead “in the sense that it is not longer a site of deep emotional passion. People still have accounts, just like they still have mailboxes. But their place for sociable communication is elsewhere.” Elsewhere these days is often text messages or instant messaging. Though those might represent mainly social communication for people in their teens and early twenties, their passionate use is bound to change the way professional communication takes place too.

We can see hints of the post-email era in tools that are under development or available right now. Let’s let these tools suggest to us how we might move beyond email as a good enough collaboration and communication tool.

1. Twitter microblogger. The current darling of the blogosphere allows for broadcast messages to your followers in answer to the question “what are you doing right now?” You send messages from the web, SMS, IM, or a desktop client and your followers receive them in the way that suits them at that time (or not at all). Twitter can replace social email like “how are you?” and “what’s going on?” at the same time it provides detailed information about what a person is doing at a particular time. If a colleague has just twittered “surfing the web” you know it might be a good time to ping them about whatever you need to discuss with them. It makes instant messaging more convenient and effective… and instant messaging is better for collaboration than email.

2. Trillian Astra unified instant messaging or other IM aggregator. We all have buddies using different instant messaging networks so it makes sense to use a unified instant messaging client like Trillian (Windows), Gaim (Linux/Unix), Adium (Mac OS X), or Meebo (Web). Astra, the next generation of the Trillian IM aggregator now under development, will have a bunch of cool new features, including a web-based profile page that can inform everyone of where you are and what you’re up to.

3. Vox blogging. Though Vox, the latest hosted blogging service from SixApart, is aimed more at personal than professional use, the breakthrough it offers to help us move away from email is very fine-grained access control. This makes it feasible for use in sharing things like photos that you don’t want everyone to see. I get email after email with photo attachments in my personal inbox. I’m looking forward to the day when everyone has their own access-controlled blog to share their photos and thoughts.

4. Tubes. Tubes provides peer-to-peer file sharing and synchronization among groups of friends, families, or colleagues without email as an intermediary. It’s Windows only right now, so not so much a solution as the idea of one for many groups. But it could provide an alternative means to share files for people who don’t want a web page as an intermediary (as with Vox).

5. Renkoo for event planning. Renkoo uses email to drive more synchronous discussion of event plans, which could be a real boon to those who suffer from the endless back and forth about what time and where to meet. It uses Comet technology to provide an instant messaging like conversation. Plany.pus offers a similar ad hoc event planning tool.

6. GMail’s RSS feeds. For mailing lists that you rarely reply to, it makes sense to read the messages as RSS feeds. GMail makes this pretty easy because it provides feeds by label. Just set up a filter to label mailing list emails, then subscribe to the feed in a feed reader that supports authentication. Or you can put your user ID and password into the feed address… but careful that you don’t make your feed subscriptions public.

There are tons of other tools that can be used to get us out of email like wikis, online office suites, even your phone. The harder part will be convincing people to do it.

What do you think about the feasibility of a post-email era? Are you trying to move some traffic out of your inbox and into different channels and tools?

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  1. Hey there thanks for mentioning Planypus. I’d just like to point out unlike Renkoo, Planypus is a truly collaborative way to make plans. It takes about ten seconds to suggest an idea and then have your friends fill in all the details. Think of it as a combination of live chat, wiki, and voting. It’s great for planning a night out, or even something involved like a vacation with a bunch of your friends contributing to making the plans instead of you having to come up with all the details. Check it out!

  2. I have been using Tubes since it launched in Beta back in January. It is an awesome way for me to send my work stuff home. So I have a tube on my office computer and I save all my work in there and then I have a tube on my home computer. At the end of the day – I drag and drop my files into the tube and when I get home, they are automatically there! I used to have to send myself 14 emails!! This is so much better! Thanks for mentioning it and I hope others will use it as well. http://www.tubesnow.com. They just had a product release and the app has new features.

  3. Great theme to discuss given how social habits change. I don’t think the analysis lives up to the discussion though. Its probably quite difficult to integrate isolated technologies developed for totally different purposes into a unified predictor of dominant future communication methods. Of the technologies discussed, text messaging seems to be one that has a great deal of credibility and usage – but only if one is willing to look at the denizens of mobile users outside the US. In the US pricing for personal communication will likely be a big impediment to a single dominant alternative emerging to email or other established communication methods at least for the near future.

  4. This may come off sounding like a flame, but I assure you that’s not how I intend it.

    While I am amused but the current “social networking” trend … has anyone stopped to think about the difference between social networking and communicating? At least in my world, communication implies valuable and quantifiable data exchange, not just the niceties and protocol. Otherwise, we’re back to high-chinned aristocratic nods as wee pass eachother in the streets.

    To use the most prevalent (and reviled?) example, while I would say that myspace may be good for networking, I would in no way ever associate it with communication. Similarly, I would say that email, while it can be used for networking, is more of a communication tool. (Indeed, how many studies have shown that email actually distances people from each other and is dissociative?)

    Texting and IM can straddle the line depending on who is using them and how. But where is the communication part of Twitter? What are you learning? There’s more to communicating than “hey, how are you?” at the watercooler.

    Different tools for different jobs.

  5. Rick O: as I mentioned in the article, Twitter is good for knowing whether your virtual colleagues are reachable or not–whether you can use IM to ask them something or whether they are too busy with something else. I’ve also used Twitter to ask a bunch of people something at once. People who don’t know don’t have to answer… people who do can send me an @ message or a direct message to help out.

    Shikash: indeed text messaging should play an important part in moving away from the email channel… but the carrier pricing makes it difficult right now. Did you see GigaOM’s article on free text messaging services?

    Note I said these tools give hints of the future, not “a unified predictor of dominant future communication methods” as you put it. In fact, I’d question whether there is going to be anything as dominant as email has been… will future generations be more willing to use as Rick O calls them “different tools for different jobs”: wikis for document collaboration, photo blogs for sharing pictures, IM for quick questions, event planning services for scheduling telecons? Or will we keep defaulting to email?

  6. Thanks for your follow-up Anne! Goes to make your point that blogs do work :)

    It would be great to attempt to understand why email did become so ubiquitous. Takeaways from that would probably signal what methods will become entrenched near term. I do admire the fact that you broached a topic that forced me to think about a paradigm shift. Thanks for pointing out Om’s article – I’ll definitely check that out.

  7. I agree – IM is overtaking email, but you still need a way to get your stuff from friends and to your other computers easily. I’m using Tubes right now when someone drops in something on their end of a tube, I get notified silently and I can have it pushed to me without taking action or review what it is and grab it on demand. Really effective way to stay in touch without using email (saw their video on the site and they do say you can drag your gmail and Outlook mail into a tube to sync) Cool – desktop to desktop email without using email.

  8. Shikash – yes, this is the ideal for blogging — your comment helped me clarify in my own mind that the direction may be to more fragmented communications mechanisms instead of the unified email channel. And it is interesting to wonder just why email is so ubiquitous.

    Here’s the post from GigaOM on free text messaging services:

    http://gigaom.com/2007/03/12/free-sms/

    tmapic: I haven’t tried Pipes yet, but it seems really useful. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  9. Renkoo and the Post-Email Era « Renkoo Blog Thursday, March 15, 2007

    [...] and the Post-Email Era Anne Zelenka of Web Worker Daily writes: Renkoo uses email to drive more synchronous discussion of event plans, which could be a real boon [...]

  10. No man is an iland Friday, March 16, 2007

    Tools for the post-email era

    …Email use for collaboration and personal correspondence may decline, but that does not necessarily mean email marketing follows suit…

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