Blog Post

The Social Web Prays at Email's Altar

[qi:gigaom_icon_social_networking] Every so often a new technology comes along, promising to revolutionize the world of communications. And in the end, it prays at the altar of email. Despite being messy and unstructured, email, which will turn 50 in a couple of years, remains the hub of our Internet experience.

Take this morning — I opened my inbox to find a dozen Twitter direct messages and a few replies to my posts on FriendFeed which, in turn, I replied to via email, Google Reader alerts (with links shared by my network), and a barrage of Facebook messages (pokes, new friends, etc.) This morning, Facebook was on my bad side because for some odd reason, I received an email saying the settings for what I want (only events-related information) had changed. I wasn’t sure how or why, but that happens. I grumbled a little, shook my fist at the Facebook gods, and then went back to change my settings.

Given that these services are meant to be alternatives to long-in-the-tooth email, I find their relationship with the medium ironic, because these (and most web services) need the aging technology to get people’s attention — not to mention the much-needed page views.  The funny thing is that despite all the new options, email growth isn’t looking to slow down anytime soon. (Related Research From GigaOM Pro, EMail: The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated. Subscription required, sign up for $79 a year.)

The Radicati Group, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based research company, recently released a study showing that the number of worldwide email users will increase to almost 1.9 billion by 2013 compared with over 1.4 billion in 2009. Radicati projects that worldwide email traffic will reach 507 billion messages per day by 2013, almost double the 2009 figure of 247 billion messages per day.

That is why one can’t blame these new social web services —  they need to show growth to get to the victory line — and email is the easiest way to get there.

As to why email is indispensable to them, the only logical explanation that I can come up with is that most of us are happy with the comfortable familiarity of our inbox interfaces. Sometimes I think of email clients as a pair of old shoes — not ready to give up, despite holes in the soles. As we become more mobile, I wonder if we are going to use our mobile inboxes as messaging aggregators of sorts.

I use myself as an example — I just don’t have enough time in the day to keep up with an increasing number of communication channels, so instead I end up using email as a crutch of sorts. I am sure many of you feel the same way. What makes things worse is that no one has done, or even remotely tried to do, something radical and game-changing with the standard email client/interface, apart from making some cosmetic and interesting changes. (A good example would be Postbox, a San Francisco-based startup launched by the former Thunderbird team.)

Back in July 2007, I wrote a column for Business 2.0 called “Fixing Email: Once a Savior, Now a Scourge.” I essentially lamented how we were using our inboxes for everything that doesn’t need to be an email, especially considering there were many different technologies that did their jobs admirably. What I thought we needed was a smart inbox:

A smart inbox would — all in one interface — catch spam in junk filters, display the wine reminder in an IM, move company news to an RSS feed, and intelligently negotiate appointment requests with your calendar in the background.

I guess if I had to write that piece today, it would include Facebook messages and status updates and keeping track of Twitter posts. For a minority of users, the ability to track FriendFeed-style conversations would make sense as well, though I don’t think it’s a pressing issue as of yet. Perhaps that’s the reason why many folks are excited about Google Wave, while I have been cautious about it.

As I wrote earlier, my biggest concern was not with the technology but more with the issue of the ingrained behavior change that it required. “Email is the most successful protocol on the planet…We can do better,” is how Lars Rasmussen, one of the creators of the platform, described the ambition of the effort. He described it as a whole new communication system. No doubt about it –- too new. As we have seen time and again, the new social tools still tend to depend a lot on email.

Google Wave’s launch obviously created a healthy debate among our readers. One of our readers wrote:

When Google initially married email and chat in Gmail, I was not very enthusiastic about it. I preferred to use the separate GTalk client for chatting. At some point, which I am not even aware of, it just became more convenient to simply chat in the same place where I emailed. I hardly ever open the GTalk client now. I can see a similar thing happening with Wave. If a single interface marries email, chat, photo sharing, document sharing, so on and so forth, and if it is done right, I think [a] lot of people will end up using it as the default online communication platform. The final product we use may not necessarily be from Google. Somebody else might create a great version of the Wave. But I can easily imagine something like this being very popular within five years from now.

Another reader, Boris Kraft, wrote:

The way it will “replace” email is by building a bridge between the wave and the email protocol. I can then use wave, you will receive email. For you it will look like it always did — messy, unstructured, etc. For me, it will probably be quite a different experience.

I hope he is right — for I am quite tired of the mess that our inbox has become. It’s just that somehow when a new communication and interaction technology comes up, hoping to supplant email, it gets subsumed in that giant, unstructured mess.


Chart courtesy of The Radicati Group.

15 Responses to “The Social Web Prays at Email's Altar”

  1. I think email will be around for a very long time. My 8th grader cousin even uses email the most comparing to Facebook and Myspace.

    Although it’s interesting to see how a lot of consumer communications are brought to other platforms now, email will stay as it is for a while at least for corporate uses.

    I just wish everything can be more integrated. Truly managing these communication channels are becoming hell.

  2. My company might not be completely “altering the Email paradigm” but SenderOK, division of WebCEO, has a plug-in that works in Outlook, Gmail, Yahoo and Live that would give a user experience similar to a new wave.

    Here are trends that are happening now (we announce that we have it and Google then says they will have it):

    1) Anti-Phishing Icons in the Inbox: The first thing you would see after installing our add-on would be Twitter and Facebook favicons representing their authentic email in your inbox. Their emails, and any reputable authentic email given favicon status, would be rescued from the spam box if it was sent there (one really should unsubscribe from that which is not really spam but you can ask the plug-in to send that sender back to spam forever if you want).

    2) Email Sorting according to your past behavior and the behavior of others in the network. This cures email overload and you can be sure that SenderOK does not think all emails are equal. A smart algorithm designates some as VIP and verbally announces the email’s arrival, while routine emails can be ignored until they are checked once per day or week.

    3) Social Networking Profiles in the Email Header Pane (we compete with xobni this way). Social networks must get out of the browser prison they are now in – that separates them from Email – or they will suffocate and die.

    All of the above are major trends and our startup is going after all three “markets” at the same time. The WebCEO programmers are now making sure we can provide real time anonymous statistics to companies on what really happens to their email and whether they can reach people another way (such as starting a conversation via the social networking portal inside the email header pane).

    Here are my blog posts and a Washington Post article on this:

  3. I completely agree that there are plenty of user needs in the email space. I spend my day buried in my inbox, and I know that there are things that take me 5 times longer to do in Outlook than it would using software that was built with a bit more innovative thinking.

    I do like what I am seeing with Postbox (what I use for all my personal email). The mission of this company appears to be focused on extending the user experience with email – it’s not just headed towards being just another “me-too” client.

    Aside from the powerful search and organization features, which I think are the client’s most compelling leg-up over other email programs, there are several other interesting features that suggest continued innovation to come…e.g. seeing my friends’ Facebook status messages when I click on their names in the “from” field…being able to sign directly into Adium to message a friend (who Postbox lets me know is online)…being able to drag a Google map or Yelp review right from the sidebar into an email message I am composing.

  4. Interesting post! I definitely think that times are changing and it is time for email to get revamped a bit (my emails- plural :P- are also messier than I would like). I think there’s something to be said for being able to process news, updates and information in the right context. This is why while I agree on some level that email is the “hub of our Internet experience”, I still double take when I read it. Every morning I have a set ritual of sites and different emails (for different uses) that I cycle through: typically, email account 1, 2 and 3, facebook and then Twitter. As I mentioned, reading and processing things in the right context is important to me (aka: email is not the right context for a lot of things :P)- so, for instance, I like to read my messages and notifications directly in facebook- I do not even get any notifications sent to me via email anymore. In fact, I think it is this context issue that it is the biggest problem; ideally my information hub will make it very easy to see, read and interact with whatever information I am being fed in the context it makes sense in. By just being sent updates on a new photo, a new message, a new blog post, context and conversation is missing. It’s early to tell but it looks to me like Google Wave might help solve some of these issues…

  5. Email is just a big catch-all to search later, kinda awesome in that respect. The message–knowing you got it allows you to put of action till it’s important. We’re all sorta lazy, so it works. However, I’m up for innovation, as long as it’s awesome!

  6. I always felt ‘Smart Inbox’ is an unfinished business. There are message rules, spam filters in some clients but still there is lot to be desired. I sure hope the email startups (like Postbox) keep innovating. Google Wave might be a huge success but there is a long road ahead for that to completely replace email.