The Future of Communication

Alex Schiff
Oct 28, 2013 · 5 min read

I’ve been thinking a lot about communication lately, especially in the context of recent trends in mobile messaging and email. Scroll to the bottom to see the articles that have informed this article, but my tl;dr takeaways are:

  1. Mobile messaging is a massive market undergoing explosive growth and competition
  2. Snapchat, Glide and others are changing the way we communicate
  3. Interest is mounting in changing the way we interact with our inboxes

As I’ve been watching this happen, two things have stood out to me.

Communication tends to be divided into two categories: temporary and permanent.

Courtesy of Steve Chung of Frankly: http://andrewchen.co/2013/09/24/congrats-to-my-friend-steve-chung-of-frankly-on-their-new-6m-investment-by-sk-planet/

Where are you? What are you doing? You’ll never believe what just happened to me. What time is the meeting? Heads up I’m running late.

Temporary communication is all about “what’s happening right now.” Its subject has immediate relevancy, and people typically respond to it as soon as they can. Where this once happened in email and later SMS (for closer connections), it’s being completely co-opted by mobile messengers, Snapchat, Frankly and other new services.

There is incredible diversity in the nature, synchronicity, privacy and probably many other attributes of this type of communication. Even though they all handle photos, public Instagram, intimate Snapchat and general-purpose MessageMe can all exist in harmony for this reason. Similar dynamics exist in video(Vine, Glide), audio (Soundcloud, Voxer) and text (Twitter, Frankly). As soon as the technology exists, I’m sure we’ll see Instatouch, Snapsmell and TasteMe too. Generally speaking, I think we’ll continue to see a lot of fragmentation in this area simply because the behaviors are so diverse.

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Permanent (or in most cases, semi-permanent) communication has, as one would expect, a sense of permanence beyond “now.” Most frequently, that’s because it requires action from you beyond, “Read and respond to the following text.” Sometimes, it’s simply information you want to save for the future (like a frequent flier number). This happens almost exclusively through email, with some limited success amongst enterprise-level productivity suites and pretty much no widespread disruption amongst decentralized consumers.

I believe this is the heart of why “email overload” exists, and it represents a much thornier problem than messaging. Consider a bucket of water with a hole in the bottom, with a hose pouring water in the top. If water comes in through the hose faster than it leaves through the hole, then it overflows.

http://leionthewater.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/photo.jpg

This is precisely what happens in an email inbox for one very specific reason: many of the items we receive from people have a sense of permanence (whether it’s because of an action required or because you want to save it).

Inbox paradigms work for ephemeral communication because the only action required is a response, so you cycle through them quickly and things never get unmanageable. When items require more substantial action from you, they sit in your inbox until you handle them. All the while, more things are coming in through that hose. A percentage of those items require action, and then they too sit in your inbox until you handle them. It’s an optimization problem that we can never win.

The inbox paradigm needs to be rethought. What will replace it? Can anything replace it (or even parts of its use)? Hell if I know, but I’m interested in figuring it out (and I touch on some ideas here).

“Generation Social,” i.e, people who came of age when social media was already established, have entirely different conceptions of communication.

I got my first email address when I was in elementary school around 1999: sportsfanatic@twmi.rr.com (FYI, it doesn’t work anymore). It was the only way to communicate electronically. There was no Facebook, GChat, Twitter, etc. Email was it, and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I had just started my freshman year in high school when Facebook became available to high school students, and I was a sophomore when Twitter launched.

My cousins, on the other hand, entered high school at a time when social media was a well-established fact of the Internet. I remember mentioning I emailed something to my cousin Tyler in the summer of 2011 (he was entering 11th grade), and he remarked, “Oh, I don’t check my email.” I was dumbfounded. He saw no need for anything but Facebook, Twitter and texting. He opened his email inbox for me, and it was literally ALL notifications from social media and his school (which he had also never looked at).

I asked my other cousin, Allison (entering Michigan State in the fall), and she echoed a similar sentiment. In fact, Facebook was already becoming less cool for both of them. They were tweeting most of their conversations with friends now. “But it’s all public?” I asked them. “So?” they replied, “if it’s private I can just text them.” Despite less than five years age difference between myself and my cousins, there was a distinct generational gap in the way we thought about communication. Where my introduction to online communication was email, for them it was Twitter and Facebook.

Future generations will demand that communication — both ephemeral and semi-permanent — is real-time, and they’ll have a fundamentally different conception of privacy than we do. The products we use for those exchanges will need to evolve to facilitate that change, too. Are we ready for it?


Major thanks to Sam Altman (@sama), Andrew Chen (@andrewchen), Alex Horak (@explorak) and Evan Hahn (@evanhahn) for letting me bounce these ideas off of them. In no way do I claim their endorsement for the views expressed in this article, but they each materially contributed to the way I think about this space. Additionally, these are the articles and essays I’ve read that have most influenced my thinking:

Paul Graham on replacing email

Hamish Mackenzie on how mobile chat is cannibalizing email

Bryan Goldberg on Mailbox being a feature not a company

Ellis Hamburger on Ping combining mobile chat and email

Kim-Mai Cutler on how fragmented mobile messaging really is worldwide

Charles Hudson on why mobile messaging can stay fragmented

Steve Chung / Andrew Chen on Frankly and the power of forgetting


Interested in this space? So is Fetchnotes. Hit me up at alex(at)fetchnotes(dot)com if you’d like to join the fight.

    Alex Schiff

    Written by

    Bringing spatial computing to everyday life @Occipital. Prior: co-founder @Fetchnotes, VP @Benzinga, and chief opinionator @michigandaily. Go Blue!

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