Email vs. SMS Messaging: How We Communicate

November 15, 2007

Slate Magazine put up an article today, titled “The Death of E-Mail,” which argues two points about the death of email. First, email is falling out of favor as users switch to social-networking sites (SNSs). Second, email should be falling out of use because it is a relic of a different age.

I’m skeptical about the first half of this article, but its a bit tough to argue without going deeply into the statistics and methodologies used, and I’m not so inclined to spend my evening analyzing relative level of use. I will, however, concede to the increasing importance of Twitter, Facebook, and Pownce (even if just in conjunction with email, which you still need to sign up for any such site.)

The second half of Chad Lorenz’s thesis, meanwhile, is something I am willing to take issue with, and I was surprised to see Thomas Hawk write in favor of it. I certainly think email can be and is routinely abused; just look here for a library of examples. But that doesn’t mean the situation will be solved by switching to Facebook messaging and Twittering.

In fact, I think its fairly well established that most early adopters of these services are starting to suffer from “log-in fatigue.” Using the same username/password for different sites might just be asking to be hacked, but maintaining a different combination of the two across the wide variety of such sites is practically ludicrous.

So the solution, as Facebook and Google have realized, is to go beyond being either a site or a portal. The holy grail now is to become a platform. And after a grand battle for technology market supremacy (a la VHS and Beta), we will all use one of these services. Then, despite a change in underlying technology, we will be back to a monolithic user interface and we will once again be receiving the same emails about how Bill Gates just wants to give us money.

I could punch up a numbered list of all the reasons I think its a bad idea to switch from email to using a variety of activity specific SNSs, but then I’d just be replicating all of the work done by Scott Beale here. (Note: if I lived in San Fransisco it’d be interesting to set up Beale and Hawk in a photographer vs. photographer battle to the death over whether email is good or evil.)

To paraphrase and add to Beale’s thoughts: SNSs are great for passively sharing information about yourself and your activities, but there will still always be a very real need for people to actively contact their friends and coworkers. In these situations, the phone is useful for day to day contact, but in situations where you need to coordinate the thoughts of a group of people about a specific project over an extended period of time, Facebook will not be replacing email any time soon if ever.