Debating the future of email w/ Scoble

Scoble is a big fan of new stuff.  Like "Web 2.0" technologies such as Twitter. 

And Robert has in the past written quite a bit about how out of control and behind he has been with email.  I don’t remember if Robert has officially declared "email bankruptcy" at any point, but he has definitely become exasperated with keeping up with email.

So it’s no surprise to see him writing at BusinessWeek about Twitter and other Web 2.0 technology unseating email.  But let’s take a look at some of his points:

"But when I left, my e-mail account was turned off. I don’t have access to that knowledge now. Neither does NEC." vs "Furthermore, anything said on Twitter stays on the Web. So your
knowledge doesn’t disappear; it stays there for your replacement at
your employer to study and learn from."

Not only can information in email be retained, transferred, and archived (and in many corporations this already happens), it has context in terms of threads, subjects, and correspondents at a level that does not exist in free-form, unstructured communication mediums like Twitter.  Having the info out there is not worth very much without good ways to actually find the specific information you need.

"With these applications, spam barely exists. If someone starts spamming
the system, he or she gets “unfollowed” and the problem is solved."

First off, these are relatively new technologies.  Spam didn’t exist when blogs first came out.  Or IM.  Or SMS.  But there’s a constant battle w/ spammers in every new technology.  Obviously, the newer and less widespread the technology, the less you’ll see spammers.  That’s just a function of time and reach.  And while the volume of spam in email is high, technology to get rid of it is pretty sophisticated.  Robert totally ignores the issue of noise, though.  The lower the cost of broadcasting a message out to a group, the more the noise.  Email has more noise "Hey guys, what’s going on for happy hour?" than phone calls do, which have more noise than face-to-face meetings.  But Twitter "waiting for bus!" and similar things put email to shame in terms of the level of noise that exists within the communication streams.

Robert has some more criticisms like "Finally, e-mail doesn’t work with groups very well. If I send a report to my boss, co-workers can’t listen in and add value." and "And you can see that people are online and answering stuff and what they are doing. " that all revolve around the idea of real-time, instant, interrupt-driven communications.

And that’s where I think the real flaw in his whole argument exists.

The benefits that Robert sees here all are largely premised on an idea that people are constantly connected and interacting with these streams.  Robert also has 5,000 Facebook friends.  And he follows 6,000+ people on Twitter.  If he’s gone for a few hours, is he going to review status updates from 5,000 Facebook friends and all those Twitter updates?  I doubt it.

Given a set of circumstances where you’re working with a specific group of people all together within a certain time period, there are many collaborative technologies that are far superior to email.  But that’s simply stating the obvious – if you need to have a meeting or a brainstorming session or need real-time feedback, then have a meeting or call/IM people instead of emailing them!  If you need to collaboratively work on a document, use a technology designed for that, not email!

But that doesn’t mean there’s any reason to replace email for the multitude of scenarios in which asynchronous communications are more effective. There is a large body of research that shows interruptions and distractions are a huge drain on productivity in the workplace and a huge source of stress to boot.  Email is a contributor to that problem, and things like Twitter only make things worse.

The problems Robert talks about are not problems w/ email.  It just sounds like Free Email Day – a reaction to a problem, not a solution. They are problems with the techniques and technologies people use with email.  The email clients of today, even "advanced" ones like Gmail or Zimbra are really not all that different than the email clients of 10-15 years ago.  Yet, the volume of email people receive and the types of things people do within email have increased dramatically. 

Email is still a great communications medium.  The fact that many Web 2.0 "sites" (sites? systems? applications? hmmm) still use the inbox as their notification point to users says a lot about that.  But as more and more activities center around the inbox, it’s true that people need better ways to manage and work with all of that information without getting overwhelmed.  The issues here parallel those I talked about in my post on the semantic web.  Just as a structured web allows for a much more useful user experience to be developed, the same opportunities exist within email.  And that’s something I’ll be talking about a lot more in the near future. 

4 Responses to “Debating the future of email w/ Scoble”

  1. I agree with your main points… but “spam didn’t exist when blogs first came out” ??? Email and USENET spam have both been around longer than blogs have.
    Just sayin

  2. David,
    What that should have said was “blog spam didn’t exist (or at least wasn’t commonplace) when blogs first came out.”

  3. the Internet’s Killer App

    Email is the Internet’s killer app, so it’s no surprise to me that, when given the opportunity, the web luminaries at the Future of Web Apps conference chose to design an app to help them with email. In a panel