Email isn't Dead – It Just Has Company

Every couple of months someone comes along and proclaims that e-mail is dead or that we’re living in the “post-email era.” Hogwash. One way I know this is that I almost invariably get these stories forwarded to me by… email.

But while I’m sure email is here to stay, that doesn’t mean that it is the only way to get your message across. Web workers are blessed with more ways to communicate than ever before. One key thing to realize is that different messages belong in different places. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out four decades ago, different media have different social effects; one reason people get the urge to kill email is that they’re getting email filled with things that would be better delivered elsewhere.

Of course, this means that if you insist on sending email for everything, you’re part of the problem. With all the different media available to you, there’s no need to cram all of your communications into email. Let’s look at just a few of the ways that you can get your thoughts to co-workers, friends, and clients – and what each is appropriate for.

Email works well for many things, of course. For most of us, the best way to make sure that we can find a message again in the future is to put it in email, where we can search for it. As any lawyer will tell you, this isn’t necessarily a good thing – which is one reason why major corporations have email retention policies that require ruthless deletion of old mail.

From email, you can proceed to more or less formal methods of communication. On the more formal side, we all know about paper mail, deliver services, and faxing: the methods that deliver a physical artifact. For web workers, such things are mainly relegated to handling contracts and similar legal instruments. The genteel art of writing letters by hand to indicate respectful attention has largely died out. Our grandmothers would be appalled.

Moving to less formal media, don’t forget about the telephone in all its incarnations, from plain old telephone service to cell phone to voice over IP. No matter how comfortable you are with email, the fact remains that we are basically slightly-evolved apes, and the tone and pace of our voice can convey information that is easily lost or misunderstood when committed to print. In tricky negotiations or tense situations, picking up the phone can save days of lobbing testy emails back and forth.

If you don’t need the archival nature of email or the intimacy of the telephone, look to instant messaging to carry the ball. For many of us involved in distributed projects, IM plays the part that casual hall conversations do for more traditional office workforces: you can use it to settle things and make progress, without the bother of a formal paper trail.

Another set of media is better than email at broadcast messages. While you certainly can send email to a long list of recipients, in practice this tends to lead to people’s inboxes getting cluttered with mail they don’t really want, as well as the occasional storm of “reply all” follow-ups. If there’s material that you think is really of lasting general interest, put it in a blog (or on a more traditional web site) instead of in email. This has the dual benefit of keeping email clutter down and building up your personal brand on the web.

What about things that aren’t of lasting interest, but that you want to broadcast anyhow? If you’re the sort of online extrovert who just can’t stop talking (or the lonely type who appreciates online company), this is where Twitter and other newfangled social media come into the picture. Messages dropped into these sites are the ephemera of the digital age, unlikely to be a substantial part of your permanent record.

Of course, this list is hardly exhaustive: SMS, podcasting, vlogging, virtual reality…the ways we can pass messages to one another is growing and expanding so quickly that it’s hard to catalog. The more of this cornucopia of communications you can make a natural part of your daily life, the better the chance that your email will just be one more piece of a well-functioning communications strategy – rather than a dumping ground for everything, whether it fits or not.

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