This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 2, 2013 - Twenty years ago, it was an innovation that ushered in a communications revolution affecting the way businesses, institutions and individuals talk to one another in a way not seen since the invention of the telegraph.
But today, some are wondering what the future holds for email.
For Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who grew up on stamps and envelopes, the “@” symbol and the catchphrase “You’ve got mail” came to define a new era of instantaneous connection. But for a rising generation of those who have never known life outside the shadow of the hashtag, instantaneous turns out to be a relative term. Could it be that the wired world has started to pass email by?
“I think it’s moving down for two reasons,” said Vicki Sauter, a professor of information systems at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “One is that millennials really like a faster response than what they get from email."
That encompasses newer phenomenon like instant messaging, something 20-somethings entering the workforce today are already accustomed to, having come of age in the era of social media, ubiquitous text messaging and mobile devices that are no longer merely phones but all-in-one hand-held communication hubs. It’s not simply enough to get a message to someone instantly. People want instant response as well.
“There’s more accountability with instant messaging because you can see if someone else is logged on,” Sauter said. “Email can go and sit in a bottomless hole for a while and you are never sure if they actually got it or not.”
That’s brought about the growing presence of intracompany messaging systems. The concept has been around for some time, but it’s an idea that has really come into its own as technology and culture mesh into a seamless web of constant connection. Sheila Burkett, founder of Spry Digital, a south side web solutions company said her office uses a low-cost instant messaging system that provides a great collaborative environment.
“We can create chat rooms for our projects so that we can keep track of conversations within each project and see all the conversations with files and attachments,” she said. “If you are offline it will even email you.”
It isn’t just a communication system but an entire project management platform. She said that type of environment is something many enterprises want to explore.
“They are easy for businesses to implement without having a big infrastructure,” she said. “You don’t have to have an IT person install it and make it work. You can buy software as a service through Amazon, everyone’s on the same client. It’s cheap or free and simple to install.”
An October article in Fast Company cited statistics showing that time spent on web-based email is declining among those under age 24. In its place, the publication said, a new breed of Facebookish conversational instant messaging tools are coming to the fore. They are replacing linear email exchanges with wider multi-person interactions more appropriate for the social media age. “Reply all” just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Not to mention that “Reply all” can create its own set of problems in terms of sheer volume. Fast Company notes that the average business user gets 114 emails every day – a significant portion of which they’d probably prefer never to see.
Plain old spam is an increasing issue as well. The snowstorm of email can make it difficult to know which flakes are important and which parts of the blizzard should be instantly disposed of.
“You get so much that you get flying away with that delete key and you don’t even think what it is you just deleted,” said Debbie Erickson, vice-president and CIO at Metro, the area’s transportation agency.
Erickson said email usage is remaining steady in her organization, but she’s seen the shift toward other media as well.
“I’m not sure that it’s a conscious decision,” she said. “In some cases there are things that work better if you want to get it out to a lot of people quickly and you have a group that is defined via social media. Certainly, if you have communication with a small group or one other person, then you tend to move toward email. Sometimes, it’s just what the person communicating is most comfortable with.”
She also sees it as part of a generation gap with younger workers preferring newer technology while veterans still feel comfortable with their old inboxes.
“It hasn’t occurred to most of senior management that there really is a change,” she said. “I think the change is starting but it’s not really sunk in. It may be years before that really starts to happen.”
Nor is that change all to the good. Erickson said many younger employees like text messaging and it does provide instant results. But it can also come with annoyances, such as an incessantly beeping mobile device when you are having an important meeting.
“It’s like a little kid standing in front of you demanding your attention,” she said. “When you get a text you almost have to deal with it. An email you just kind of push off and deal with it when you want to.”
That can bring up issues of decorum. While some may be comfortable with texting, others find the abbreviated universe of “lols” and “fyis” to be too brusque and overly familiar.
“It would not be the kind of thing you would do to land a client,” UMSL’s Sauter said. “It would not be the kind of thing you would use to apply for a job. It may not be the way you’d respond to your boss.”
Much like the transfer from paper and pen to email, the move to IMing has traded off formality for speed.
“Even in email, you can write well,” she added. “You can have a well-structured letter. Instant messaging, you don’t structure it.”
Yet the phenomenon of tweeting remains more popular than ever. Huge followings in social media can mean a big payoff for companies whose advertising can now be targeted to individuals actually interested in the product and have made a conscious decision to subscribe for updates. This narrowcasting approach is a sharp departure from junk email blasts that fill the inboxes of near-random recipients who, at best, ignore the message or, more likely, are annoyed by it. Even television and radio, which can provide demographic targeting to certain audiences, can’t attain the precision of guaranteeing someone who actually wants to hear the message a company is disseminating, even if it is limited to 140 characters.
“There is a subset of people who communicate with Twitter a lot,” said Burkett. “There are a lot of conversations and relationships being developed over Twitter.”
Not everyone is into social media, however. Outside the business world, one doesn’t have to be. Retiree Laurie Hansell of Olivette said she’s sticking with her inbox.
“My grandchildren are forced to use email, even though they Facebook all the time, because I won’t go to Facebook,” she said with a chuckle.
She noted that sharing personal information can even negatively affect one’s career.
“I’m not of the generation like the kids are now,” said the 58-year-old former business manager. “They just put everything in the world out there on Facebook. You hear about employers looking at people’s Facebook pages and not hiring because of casual things put on there.”
University City resident Ellen Reed said her use of email has gone in two different directions.
“It sort of rollercoastered a bit,” said Reed, who works for Turning Point, a domestic violence shelter in Warrenton. “I think it’s up now for work but way down personally.”
That’s because the 56-year-old finds herself mainly texting or Facebook messaging for personal communications. Emailing is more for professional contacts. She’s also a regular on listserves.
“For transferring documents, I use email almost exclusively,” said Reed, who estimates she gets about 150 email messages a day.
Back at Spry Digital, just how much the business communications world has changed can be seen in the company’s use of a program integrated into Adobe that allows participants to exchange e-signatures on PDFs. Even the old contract signing meeting in the proverbial smoke-filled boardroom isn’t what it once was.
“Within two minutes we’ve got signed contracts and nobody has ever had to sit in front of each other,” Burkett said.