Email is not too big to fail

Email has evolved into a weird medium of communication where the best thing you can do is destroy it quickly, as if every email were a rabid bat attacking your face. — Paul Ford, writer

Bill French used the line — Email is where knowledge goes to die — for a talk in Australia in 1999, but the first time I heard the line was from JP Rangaswami in 2004 at the Supernova conference, when I had been asked to chair a panel on email and spam, and he was a panelist. Rangaswami offered the line up as defense for my talk, Email Sucks, the title and tenor of which led to a great deal of head-shaking.

JD Lasica reported on the event, where the split in opinions between email and more social communication tools was very contentious:

At one point, danah boyd, a doctorate candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, berated panelists for not addressing the needs of the younger generation. Among her peers, she said, “E-mail is dying out. Young people overwhelmingly prefer instant messaging. You’re creating a conversation gap between generations.
At a later session on e-mail and spam, moderator Stowe Boyd of Corante took up a similar chant. “E-mail is just bad. We’ve grown used to it over 20 years. We think of it as a conversation medium when in fact it is not. It’s based upon a non-conversational model. We should move away from e-mail as fast as we can.” He said instant messaging, RSS, group blogging, wikis and SMS will eventually diminish our reliance on e-mail. Already, 75 to 87 percent of young people say they prefer IM as their communication medium of choice.
From the audience, blogger John Patrick, former Internet technology chief of IBM, defended e-mail, saying it has been one of the greatest communications advances in modern times, letting parents and grandparents communicate with their children across continents. His comments were met with applause.

Years have passed, and email is still with us. But danah [no relation, by the way, and she does not capitalize her name] was right in her characterization about the demographic split around email. The Radicati Group’s report on email shows that email is now dominated by business use — over 108 billion email messages per day in 2014 — but consumer email traffic as a percentage of overall communication is falling, and mobile messaging and social networking sites are growing in importance, especially among younger people. That’s the future.


In a mobile world, I expect the phone number will replace the email address.

Email was the killer app of the early Internet. An email address forms a unique handle on the Web, and as a result of the protocols that underlie the passage of email from server to server, anyone can communicate with anyone else, so long as they know the email address.

This seems like a profoundly democratizing idea, but in reality it’s just an echo of the postal service, and led to the same excesses — junk mail — that the original mail did. The form factor of email is perfect for spam, and imperfect for everything else.

It took 10 years for danah and me to be right about email, and in an additional five or 10 years the trends we are seeing in the consumer Web and mobile apps will have percolated through to the enterprise.


The form factor of email is perfect for spam, and imperfect for everything else.

And email is now falling into disfavor, despite having been the bedrock of corporate communications for decades. Why? The simple reason is that email is structurally flawed. For example, think about Inbox Zero: a core goal of our email communications is to hide the communication as quickly as possible, getting it out of our inbox. It reminds me of a Renault I once owned where I had to take out part of the back seat to change the oil.

Paul Ford made the point that email is too big to fail in Doomed to Repeat It:

Is there another form of communication besides email where the acknowledged goal is to hide all of the communication? Email has evolved into a weird medium of communication where the best thing you can do is destroy it quickly, as if every email were a rabid bat attacking your face. Yet even the tragically email-burdened still have a weird love for this particular rabid, face-attacking bat. People love to tweet about how overwhelming it all is. They write articles about email bankruptcy and proclaim their inbox zero status. Email is broken, everyone agrees, but it’s the devil we know. Besides, we’re just one app away from happiness. A tremendous amount of human energy goes into propping up the technological and cultural structure of email. It’s too big to fail.

Ten years later, after the rise of the social Web, I can openly advocate for the end of email without it seeming like a subversive act, like burning the flag or proposing the adoption of a parliamentary democracy. But rather than a sudden halt of email, we are going to witness the gradual attenuation, a slow decay of email, as use case after use case is replaced by tools better suited to their application. Instead of email, I direct-message some friends on Twitter because I want to share a tweet with them. I invite someone to a Hangout so I can share my screen. And with the people that I work with most, I naturally gravitate to chat-based tools that operate on a small social scale and where the context of our interactions is in the foreground, not ferreted away in some archive or folder.


Rather than a sudden halt of email, we are going to witness the gradual attenuation, a slow decay of email, as use case after use case is replaced by tools better suited to their application.

There are car repair shops all over America that still rely on fax machines, but that is fading away. I can order a sandwich online, here in Beacon N.Y., but I can’t fax the order in anymore. Western Union closed its telegram services on Jan. 27, 2006, and the worldwide system of telegraph interconnection is coming to a rapid end. Some media forms ultimately die, and I think email will too.

In a mobile world, I expect the phone number will replace the email address. And the contacts managed on our mobile device will be a better indicator of our social connections than the cc lists in our enterprise email. And we will tolerate the apparent chaos of using dozens of specialized apps for different kinds of communication, knowing that this leads to stronger connection, better understanding and deeper productivity.


This post was written as part of the Dell Insight Partners program, which provides news and analysis about the evolving world of tech. Dell sponsored this article, but the opinions are my own and don’t necessarily represent Dell’s positions or strategies.