Email Is Dead? Not So Fast

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gave a speech recently at the Nielson Consumer 360 Conference, arguing that the dominance of email was under threat by the explosion of both competing and complementary technologies likes SMS and social networking communications tools. This challenge to email’s pre-eminence, Ms. Sandberg added, was most apparent among the young.

Now, the occasion of the COO of a leading social networking company sounding the death knell of email should be a shock to no one, but a closer examination of her comments brings into relief some concerns I have long had about how some in the tech community overplay the implications of tech trends and shifting user behavior, particularly among the young.

First, on the merits: As much as we might dread that Monday morning Inbox avalanche there is little beyond anecdotal evidence to support any impending death of email as a leading form of business and personal communication, even among the young and fickle. Ms. Sandberg based much of her ‘Email is Going Away’ dictum on the Pew Internet‘s report on teens and mobile phones study which found that only 11% of teens communicated with their friends via email daily. The operative word here is daily. What it did not state was that teens eschewed email in any obvious way as a communications tool. Indeed, the Pew report went on to conclude that nearly 70% of teens did, in fact, use email “at least occasionally” as a complementary technology to other tools at their disposal–typically, cell phones, instant messaging, and social networking applications.

So, in terms of supporting data, there is little foundation to Ms. Sandberg’s view — at least not in the short-term. Email traffic continues to increase unabated although usage patterns have been fairly stable since the middle of the last decade. To be sure, email will eventually go away much like most consumer technologies eventually go away through a process of innovation and supercession. However, while we are seeing the beginnings of that evolution now, that day is quite a ways off.

To the chagrin of many English professors “always on” technologies and real-time communication has led to communication and time compression and an overall impoverishment of the English language, at least in terms of the written word (or, more commonly, acronym.) To borrow a phrase, why write when you can leave voicemail; why leave voicemail when you can email; and, why email when you can text? Email has clearly supplanted letter writing to such an extent that letter writing almost appears quaint in 2010; either that or it is done as an intentional formality to preserve the record or to establish some documentation foundation – as in the case of nasty letters going back and forth between opposing counsel during litigation. That said, SMS and social networking platforms are not presenting anywhere near the same threat to email as email has challenged traditional letter writing. Email was clearly disruptive to the written letter. SMS and related technologies, on the other hand, appear (at least at this point) to be more of an iteration of email not an elegant replacement for it. Ideally suited for short, quick messages, SMS is the better vehicle for that kind of communication, especially among networks of colleagues and friends where the inherent informality of SMS is not an issue. Predictably, utilizing email as the medium to send such messages will continue to dwindle in favor of SMS. We are already seeing that in our daily email usage patterns. While jokes, pics and other “social” content used to clog our Inboxes a decade ago, those communications have now moved from email to social networking and photosharing sites. [Honestly, when was the last time you received a mass email joke on your work computer?] This is hardly supercession and not indicative of any mortal threat to email.

Where Ms Sandberg makes her greatest miscalculation is in the assumption that — and I am paraphrasing — “to find out what we (adults) will be doing in the next five years, look at what teens are doing today.” I think that is a reasonable statement as it relates to the younger demographic being more comfortable embracing new consumer technologies and being more free about sharing data and waiving privacy concerns, but communication patterns and needs among teens and adults are an entirely different matter.  For one obvious thing, teens do not hold jobs that typically require the kind of formal communication demands that would necessitate email. Texting the boss that you’re going to be late for your shift at The Olive Garden is probably not a career-ending move, I would wager. Collaborating with colleagues when you are 17 usually means deciding when to meet behind the stock room and determining who’s turn it is to buy beer. SMS is the technology for you, my friend. Right this way. Additionally, SMS has a nice transient nature to it so there’s little concern that all those messages will be subject to court subpoena years later. So, one could further argue that the value of communications methods are somewhat correlated with their longevity. Like dandelion spores, text messages tend to find their intended target and then disappear into the ether for all time. Courts may challenge that later but I’m unaware of anyone who’s saved a text message for more than a day or so. Email? Most businesses have been caching email since the mid ’90s as part of basic internal document retention policies. That’s not going to end anytime soon.

Jonathan Tower is a Managing Director at Citron Capital, a global private equity and venture capital firm, where he focuses primarily on enterprise software, consumer Internet, media, Web services and infrastructure investments. His blog is called The Adventure Capitalist.