Is Email at Death’s Door?

Posted July 27th, 2012 at 4:50 pm (UTC-4)

A lot of Internet tech talkers are preparing a coffin for electronic mail.  Some are even shoveling dirt on it.  And while it’s pretty obvious that email is not dead dead at age 41, it’s looking pretty pallid.

Email's ever-present "at" sign.  Will it go back to being an obscure symbol?  (Editor at Large, Wikipedia Commons)

Email’s ever-present “at” sign. Will it go back to being an obscure symbol? (Editor at Large, Wikipedia Commons)

Those of us who must swim through a daily email stream of spam, scams, advertising pitches and messages having nothing to do with our work or our lives have muttered that we wish it would go away and die.  But the alternatives — texting and tweeting and IMing and such — don’t appeal to everyone.

IMing.  We’re in such an all-fire hurry, as my mother used to say — so addicted to shortcuts and shorthand — that we can’t even type out the words “instant messaging.”

Blame it on the kids!

Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook, says, flatly, “Young people no longer use email.”

And if they don’t use it, the reasoning goes, it’s doomed.  After all, today’s teens will be tomorrow’s tech-savvy, impatient adults.

“They prefer SMS,” Zuckerberg continues.  “They want something more immediate like texting and chats for their conversations.”  They?  Zuckerberg is 28!  A geezer.

A young person doing what young people do.  (kamshots, Flickr Creative Commons)

A young person doing what young people do. (kamshots, Flickr Creative Commons)

SMS is more shorthand.  It was coined to describe the “short message service” provided by telecom companies so the young’uns could send and receive short blurps of 160 characters or fewer — texts, we now call them — rather than bothering with tedious emails.  And, of course, there’s Twitter and its 140-character limit, which is a free service on the Internet.

Life in haiku!

There’s virtue in getting to the point, but what’s to become of nuance, the pleasure of writing or reading an artfully crafted thought, of storytelling?

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the forest.  Pretty soon, she came upon a house. She knocked . . .

And? And?  What happened next?

Sorry.  Out of characters.

American society has become restless, antsy, almost caffeinated.  Who has time for rich conversation?

You think I exaggerate?  Check the sales of “energy drinks” and “energy shots.”  Forbes magazine reports that Innovation Ventures, the maker of one such product, “5-Hour Energy,” is selling 1.4 million 59-mL bottles each day.

The two-way radio: one of our first "hand-held communication devices."  (AV Hire London, Flickr Creative Commons)

The two-way radio: one of our first “hand-held communication devices.” (AV Hire London, Flickr Creative Commons)

I first encountered the world of shorthand conversation decades ago on one of my jobs as a lowly street-crew worker, patching cracks, fixing potholes, cleaning storm drains.  Supervisors, lolling in the truck while we toiled in the hot sun, chatted back and forth on what we called, for lack of a better word, “two-way radios.”  They used a mix of military, police, and street-crew jargon, laced with nicknames.

“Yeah, Charlie. Greg.  Gimme your 10-20 on that black job.” “Black” was short for asphalt.

They’d talk like that all day, even when they weren’t on their walkie-talkies.  I imagined them arriving home at night and calling out, “Hey, Gloria, what’s the 10-35 on dinner?”

Now our whole society communicates in quick bursts, devoid of subtlety.

Which brings us back to the death knell of email.

Two years ago, independent researchers at the Pew Internet & American Life Project completed an extensive study of teens’ use of mobile phones.  Not surprisingly, they found that “text messaging is exploding” in that age group as “a vital form of daily communication with friends.”  Almost 9 of 10 teens with cellphones texted every day.

All day long, in many cases.  Pew reported that “a typical teen sends about 50 texts per day.”  Cryptic texts, not emails.  Many teenagers barely used their cellphones to make phone calls.  “The only person I call is my dad,” one teen reported.  “He doesn’t know how to text yet.  So I just call him.”

You can guess which form of communication is LEAST likely to be used by teens.


To a young person, stationary computers might as well be room decorations.  Not very attractive ones, come to think of it.  (gjs, Flickr Creative Commons)

To a young person, stationary computers might as well be room decorations. Not very attractive ones, come to think of it. (gjs, Flickr Creative Commons)

A full 41 percent of teenage respondents in the Pew survey said they never used email to communicate with their friends.  “Email is almost exactly like how it sounds” to a young person, technology writer Damien Douani noted last year: “a mere electronic version of traditional paper mail with a mailbox and ‘carbon copies’ (CC).”

In other words, so last century.

Email is not made for easy interaction, collaborating, or coordinating, Douani continued.  Its overuse has “resulted in watering down its significance.  Even though there may be measures to prevent spam, so much of what is received goes directly into the trash.”

And “the volume of emails we send and receive is unsustainable for business,” Thierry Breton, CEO of the information-technology company Atos Origin, proclaimed last year.  In February, he announced plans to eradicate company email within three years.

“Email is on the way out,” he said.

“What’s the matter with Email?” Jill Duffy asked in PC Magazine last December.

Now THIS looks like my inbox, expecially after I've been away a few days.  (Tidewater Muse, Flickr Creative Commons)

Now THIS looks like my inbox, expecially after I’ve been away a few days. (Tidewater Muse, Flickr Creative Commons)

Frankly, email is wasteful.  Sure, it doesn’t require chopping down trees like paper mail, but it creates a mess of data that often winds up in the hands of people who don’t need it.  Those recipients waste their time reading messages just in case they do pertain to them, or more likely, deleting emails as a never-ending struggle to clear their inbox of irrelevant clutter.  In both cases, the clock is ticking and the meter is running.

Ah, yes.  The clock.  So much to do.  So little time.   Less is more, so write less.  Blathering on in an email is ineffective and wasteful of your time and that of the recipient.

At work, I’m seeing an increase in bursts of information.  Like fireworks, they pop up on my computer screen.  And we use a program called Google Talk to communicate with our editors and close colleagues that’s another bleep-and-blurp system.  It alerts you the instant someone has “messaged” you.  And you blurp right back.

While there’s no limit on the number of words or characters one can send, most of these exclamations are short, on the old “KISS” theory that it’s best to “keep it simple, stupid.”

Ted Leonsis has a reputation for being "ahead of the curve" when it comes to Internet technology.  Now he's leaving part of the curve behind.  (TEDxMidAtlantic, Flickr Creative Commons)

Ted Leonsis has a reputation for being “ahead of the curve” when it comes to Internet technology. Now he’s leaving part of the curve behind. (TEDxMidAtlantic, Flickr Creative Commons)

Here in Washington, Ted Leonsis, the owner of two professional sports teams — the ice-hockey Capitals and the basketball Wizards — was an avid, longtime emailer.  An Internet pioneer at America Online, better known as AOL, Leonsis is at ease with the medium.  He used it to promote his teams, comment on the comings and goings of players and coaches, and especially to chat one-on-one with fans.  I once wrote him to complain about an announcer whose work I found substandard, and he replied within minutes, countering my criticisms point by point.

But earlier this month, Leonsis announced he was “pulling the plug” on email.  “I just found myself spending an hour or two hours every day,” he told the Washington Post, “and it wasn’t helpful any more.  I’m finding that meeting with people one-on-one, being on message boards, reading comments [online], it’s just a better, more efficient way.”

Most of us who aren’t multimillionaire executives have also tired of the daily drill of winnowing email wheat from chaff, only to have to reply to the 20 or 30 or 40 messages of substance that are left.  And they keep coming, like ants lining up for their turn at the sugar in the pantry, all day long.

Email is overwhelming people — and not just teenagers — to the point that they’re scrambling for alternatives.  Google tried to develop one called “Google Wave,” that involved a thread of text, photos, and “gadgets.”  You could read, join, and comment on the wave at any time, and then propel it forward.

Not enough people did.  Google discontinued the wave early this year.  Observers concluded that it had too many features at a time when busy people craved simplicity.

For those of you under 90, these are "teletype machines."  They "revolutionized" communications by transmitting the typewritten word -- not just dots and dashes -- from one point to another, or many others, around the world.  (U.S. Army)

For those of you under 90, these are “teletype machines.” They “revolutionized” communications by transmitting the typewritten word — not just dots and dashes — from one point to another, or many others, around the world. (U.S. Army)

No one knows for sure whether email will join a long line of communication marvels that once seemed indispensable and indestructible, only to become outmoded, archaic, and finally just plain dead:

Cave pictographs.

Smoke signals.

Mail delivery by stagecoach.

The telegram.


Handwritten letters.

They’re goners, or on the way out the door.

I’ve actually kept count of the number of penned personal letters I’ve received this year.  It wasn’t hard.  The number is 3.  In turn, I have sent 1. “Penmanship teacher” must be right up there along with “telegrapher” and “typewriter repairman” among obsolete occupations.

Email software designer, too, before long.

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Blather. To talk on and on, to the point that nothing you say has any impact.

Haiku. A very, very short — just 17 syllable — form of poetry, developed in Japan.

Pallid. Gaunt, sickly-looking, peaked. That last word, by the way, is pronounced “PEEK-id” in this context.

9 responses to “Is Email at Death’s Door?”

  1. […] more at Voice of America (blog). Filed Under: […]

  2. Steve ONeill says:

    I may be a snob.
    Most of what I see as texting is just gossip chatter.
    When real work needs to be done, complex or technical ideas and information shared: EMail is still the best option.

    If people do not want a lot of clutter in their system they might put the filters that come with EMail to better use.

  3. Interesting read, but for the foreseeable future I still see email as the way forward. It will evolve, and the ways in which it is used will change but email most certainly is not on deaths door just yet –

  4. […] Friday, the latest in a long string of “email is dead” blog posts was published, this time by a guy named Ted Landphair, and as if right on cue, folks I know in […]

  5. Mike says:

    Ted Leonsis;

    I find your article quite enjoyable in it’s reflexion of the quite rapid movement of technology as it sweeps across our lives like a passing gravitational object restructuring our DNA resulting in some new evolutionary adaptation of human habit.

    As a college student graduating in 1979 to end up working in a Radio Shack Computer Center Store Sales Manager, I have developed a fondness for observing the fast trends of technology and the slow trends for human acclimation for such technologies.

    One of my observation for the first 20 years was that people tend to be a good 10 years behind the curve for technology that is accessible today. I was one of those that thought fax machines would be a fad that would not last as long as it did, but again, it takes more time for people to get ride of old habits (and machines) than it does for them to rush and try something new. Then of course, when they try something new, it proves up the fact that without the skills to adapts, they remain with their old habits for a time. My rule is to never buy something that is version 1.0, with it being much better to hold out for at least a full year before buying a new release, knowing that all the debugging and beta reviews prior to the actual release is never enough. When is the last time you saw version 1.0 stay that way for more than 6 months.

    I feel that after a time, email will revive. Certainly the spam issue must be addressed, but this means that you end up paying for some service that keeps your name off the junk mail lists, or someone invents the disposable email account that only you preferred contacts get through. But having something automated that blocks something or someone trying to reach and and touch you – a great advertising campaign by AT&T to get you to make a long distance call that still lingers with us today in many other forms, leads me to dislike NOT GETTING that new email from a new contact. Yes there is abuse, and we could ban alcohol because of the abuses, but you will find that we will bring it back into the culture just the same, because, quite frankly, sometimes you just need a drink.

    And this is how I will feel about email. I don’t think it will go away, it is the right measure of technology for the sending side. It is certainly perfect for the response side of an email. It has all the tools of the Internet at your finger tips, along with the full computing power of the PC desktop. It has a great historical archiving capability, it definitely replaced my tracking book of the early 1980’s and I believe it will be the discovered Gutenberg Press of the masses, making publishers out of the common man, in an hour that was at least expected, where are memoirs composed in ongoing daily journals of outgoing emails has truly and quite accurately captured the epoch of our lives.

    Unfortunately for the younger generation, content on their phones and the iconic language set that goes with it, has been reduced to and is reflective of an “American Society (which) has become restless, antsy, almost caffeinated”, as you have put it.

    If we look at the standard of technology that works, and I do not mean technology in the form of electronic gadgets, but the technology of the written and the spoken word, you might be able to see beyond the current low tech communication and jargon of an emptied calorie conversation and know with some surety what will persist.

    What will persist is good communication, young people will grow up and find out they need to know how to do that. This does not mean they will not grow up with their own set of clichés and jargon of ongoing generations; dictionaries do change with the culture. But it does mean that the generations that will make the impact will leave to the next one, a well understood and legible message. For the life of me, I still do not have a way to retrieve and archive a text message. E-mails I have on hard drive, cd rom, and printed paper.

    If I have something to say, as I turn 60 years of age, I still like to know that my point was well communicated and that the person I spoke (or wrote to) understood my communication. I have time to be understood, and I agree with you, most of E-mail is a waste, but what I put down for my epoch journal should not be as wasteful as the emptied calorie content that is marketed and sold as ‘APPS’ and “Entertainment”. I do enjoy modern technology very much, each new release of some gadget or new application is like an ongoing, personal Christmas of gifts, I just have to pay for them. But I do not acquire the new electronic gadgetry at the expense of good communication.

    I have found I will take quality time to write a good and specific email, but if I pick up a piece of paper and a pen, my hand will cramp up long before I finish a legible correspondence. The Email in it’s current form, residing on a desktop computer is quite a remarkable tool. It is good for a people to understand that certain tools are inherently good and should be encouraged to be used properly. As the morals and standards of a society degrade, so will the use of good tools as well as good systems, logic and concepts. As we loose heart, we loose substance, leaving us with empty content to ponder, and shorter word structures to describe it. After all, you don’t need a lot of words either if you have little or nothing to say in the first place. If the younger generation has little or nothing to say, maybe they are using the technology in a way that reflects that current status. I predict that it will not stay in fashion long. Even today when I text on my Windows 7 Phone, I make an effort to use complete sentences. This is not for the recipient, but more so for my own legacy to be able to read and write (or hunt and peck on a phone screen while I toggle back and forth for numbers and correct punctuation marks. I typed in high school and managed to get up to a total of 35 words a minute and dreaded that damnable technology when I had to do term papers in college. Making a mistake and using erasable paper is certainly a far cry from spell check and word processors. Today I type at a very quick rate and seem to enjoy the mental though process of of physical typing and mental pondering as I go along. Physiologists say there is something important about the human experience and this association of manual and thought processes. If I had more time I would look it up on the Internet. I got about 1,839,504 results (0.28 seconds) typing in “manual and mental processing of information and benefits to a younger generation”. No time to read all that, but if you have any doubt about having manual as well as mental, one should avail them self of the time.

    The features of Email are very robust in the 21 first century, I fear it is not the problem with Email that we should be concerned with, but more so the degradation of proven methods of communication and the abuse of such a robust tool. As a society we should strive to retain the proven standards of communication. Maybe this can only be achieved by each individual email you send out. Then having a respect for technology and doing good with it would have us not looking for the next new release, but rather maintaining standards that work.

    Weeding through the sent lists of forwarded endless dribble is frustrating to be sure, especially the superstitious chain letter ones, where if you don’t send this out to 10 people in the next 10 minutes, then ’email’ has brought a curse upon us that God in heaven, all the blood of the savior, the prophets of Mohamad and the Gurus of India could not turn the course of destruction that will befall you if you fail.

    It is just like the phone, just because it rings, you really don’t have to answer it, but you still might want to check who left the message, and which message did they leave.

    Good communication and writing an email as if it were going into you life’s epoch work is a standard that might prioritize what you spend time doing. If you have no use for communication, become a monk, take a vow of silence. If you want a record of what you spent your life thinking, talking and doing, start archiving and reviewing your emails. You will find a gold mine of data to reflect on who you are.

    Thoughts for a 21 st Century Renaissance Man (Woman / Person).

  6. tland says:

    Dear Mike,

    Not sure whether you were directing this to me to to Ted Leonsis, who, although I mention him in this post, probably doesn’t read my blog.

    A thorough and spirited defense of email, which I, too, could not see myself abandoning in favor of quick-thought texts and other blurbs. I shudder to think what will pass as communication in the United States a century from now. Maybe, by then, we’ll be back to grunts, like cave people. They’re short and to the point, after all.

    Ted (Landphair, not Leonsis)

  7. Mark says:

    I would speculate that the mail is not dead yet but it is still the most effective vehicle for fast business thou highly abused. With this regard a prudent policy framework and vitalization mesures are needed to safeguard it from death trap. However, face book has attracted a lot of customers within a short run period though it has not vaguely managed to transform itself from being a chart engine to a progressive vehicle. I believe its transformation from being a talk face to social service engine which goes beyond hie and hellos, for it to able to sustain itself in the long run period. For example facebook banking, fc book global education platform from tetiary down to kindagarten to say the least

  8. Frank McCosker says:

    Email is great. Texting is like translating from a foreign language. Only the sender knows exactly what is said. The receiver is guessing. Learn how to communicate properly and don’t be lazy, impatient; your recipients will be grateful.

  9. tland says:

    Dear Frank,

    Amen. Perhaps you saw my reply to Mike. I wish I had made this point in the original blog: As we keep shortening and shortening our modes of contact, and in fact AVOIDING real human contact, we’re heading back to the beginning of human communication: grunts.


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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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