A few months ago I learned my 15-year-old cousin would be passing through town, so I sent him an e-mail inviting him to stop by and say hi. Two weeks later, I got his reply. “Sorry I missed you in New York. I really don’t check my e-mail that much.” Oh.
E-mail can’t be over, can it? The latest numbers seem to indicate that it depends on how old you are. ComScore’s 2010 U.S. Digital Year in Review found that e-mail usage was down 8% overall in 2010, which is pretty impressive to me although part of the drop may be attributable to how people check e-mail on smartphones without actually logging into their Web-based e-mail accounts. But that’s nothing compared to the 59% drop in the in the 12 to 17-year-old age bracket. No wonder my cousin failed to answer me.
So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that a teenager is more likely to be tuned into text messages and Facebook updates than good ol’ e-mail, but what’s much more surprising is that some of my professional colleagues, people in their 40s and 50s, have started to contact me via Facebook rather than write directly to the e-mail address I’ve been using for the past 15 years. Facebook has become such an everyday on-screen default for them that they use it as their address book. They’re on the social network anyway, so why not fire off messages from there? (A few of my colleagues also seem to love direct messaging via Twitter.) Am I the only one amazed by this? Are you experiencing this phenomenon too, and if so, how are those people connected to you and how old are they?
Most of my business colleagues still do send old-fashioned e-mails, and the fact that every day an average of 294 billion e-mails are sent indicates that e-mail certainly isn’t dead yet, especially in the world of business. Why? Because we have yet to come up with another bulletproof communication system that keeps an archive of everything we’ve said, everything our co-workers have said, and what we’ve all promised each other. E-mail tends to become the database of our work, and unless our bosses flush it out on a regular basis, we like to hang onto it forever. Business is a world of meeting agendas, brainstorms, reminders, and multi-person projects that still depend on e-mail as the most universally accepted means of communication. (As for the phone, that’s so 20th-century.)
There’s also the vital issue of e-mail archiving as required by legal or regulatory mandate in many industries and government agencies. Many of us have no choice but to conduct our affairs in properly locked-down corporate e-mail environments, and I’m sure that’s not going to change anytime soon. What’s the alternative?
So businesses still use e-mail and will continue to do so, but today’s teens don’t and probably won’t want to start as they get older. You have to start wondering what will happen in about five years when these texting teens arrive in the workplace and are confronted with a Microsoft Outlook screen full of departmental memos and requests from their bosses. I assume they’ll simply get with the program and do as they’re told, but I wonder if they won’t also start agitating for change, forcing IT to research and test more social and/or group-oriented communication tools. There are already several out there—Microsoft SharePoint is a leader in codified collaboration, for example—but nothing other than easy-to-use e-mail has yet to achieve ubiquity.
So yes, I tell my Facebook friends, feel free to send me a message, but if you want to talk business we’ll be switching back over to regular e-mail right away. For me, social media is a playground. Let’s talk about the budget reports and marketing analyses somewhere else.