Barely a week goes by when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg isn’t in the news promoting a new feature on his social networking website. His most recent high-profile, controversial statement came in November last year. He branded email “slow and formal” – while promoting a revision to the Facebook messaging system, of course.
Hyperbole or fact? Is it time to move away from email altogether? We all have lots of options for communication, and Facebook is just one of them. Social media has broadened the scope of online interaction beyond anything Ray Tomlinson could ever have imagined when he first inserted an @ symbol in an email address in the early 1970s. Internet chatting has become more sophisticated with services like Twitter and Skype, and VOIP services are taking over from traditional telephony. Nowadays, Grandma and Granddad think nothing of video chatting with grandkids or tapping out messages on hand-held touchscreen devices.
Each type of online messaging has its purpose and place in our digital world. (Hopefully) nobody would apply for a job as a lawyer from the messaging system in their Facebook account. You also probably wouldn’t arrange a teleconference with a tweet. When Mark Zuckerberg claimed email was dying, he was wrong. Zuck’s rant against email was met by scepticism right across the board, and his subsequent ‘reinvention’ of messaging wasn’t quite the revolution he perhaps hoped. Why? People like to use systems they understand.
Email may have a formality, but it’s now just as normal as posting a letter in the mail.
Email is 40 years old and still going strong: it’s a powerful tool in business because it’s fast, it’s cheap and data can be archived and retrieved with ease. Email can be used to transmit documents and files as well as text, and in 2012 it’s more secure than it ever has been. Spam filtering is ever more sophisticated and virus monitoring is robust and reliable. Tools like Hosted Exchange allow us to free email from small, local servers and instead harness shared resources in powerful data centres. The BlackBerry was instrumental in bringing email from the desktop to the mobile device, and now almost all of us check our emails on smartphones, tablet PCs and even our games consoles thanks to cloud technology.
Facebook may handle as many as 4 billion chat, SMS and email messages a day between its 750 million users, but the use of email dwarfs it: in 2010, estimates placed the number of emails sent per day at around 300 billion. (OK, a vast majority of those are junk, but Facebook isn’t innocent in that regard either.) We have come a long way from the early days of ARPANET when emails were a few lines of ASCII on a green and black computer screen, but low cost, accessibility and speed of transmission will ensure email has a long life yet.