I have in my computer every e-mail message I have sent or received since 1992. Minus the obvious spam, this database comes to about half a million messages from people as varied (or similar, if you think about it) as Larry Ellison and Larry Flynt. But lately my e-mail seems to be dying. Yours is, too.
What’s happening to e-mail is complex but comes down to changing contexts and competing media. Back in 1992 communication for me meant e-mail (which at that time for me was cc:mail, MCI Mail, and Internet mail), snail mail, Usenet newsgroups, bulletin board systems like The WELL, telephone, and fax. Today the mix has changed almost completely and I have Internet mail, snail mail, SMS, various chat systems (Skype, iChat, ICQ, etc.), Twitter, Facebook and other social networks, and the big one for me — WordPress. BBS’s are gone as are proprietary e-mail systems, my fax machine was thrown-away long ago and Usenet has been subsumed into the Internet as a whole.
Spam killed for most of us the native joy of e-mail. Looking back at my early 1990s mailboxes I see a rich discourse with readers and almost no spam at all. There was no noise to cut through, no need for social networks to vet our contacts. I could get to almost anyone back then by e-mail and they could get to me.
Then spam spoiled it all. I hate spam. I feel betrayed by spam and the spam industry. Remember those proposals to put an ISP postage charge on e-mails to eliminate spam? Those proposals failed because it looked too much like a restriction of speech or a violation of net neutrality, but I wish it had worked. I’d gladly pay a couple bucks per month to be truly spam-free.
But as we are wont to do, instead we added a layer of technology to deal with spam just as we had for viruses and trojans. Anti-spam became a big business just as spam had become before it. I’m paying that couple of bucks but this way it isn’t deterring spam at all, just hiding most of it.
For me a second big e-mail hit came with my switch to WordPress in late 2008. Changing from Moveable Type at PBS to WordPress on my own was a revelation since it eliminated two editorial layers and replaced crappy technology with elegant technology. But the unintended consequence for me was a huge drop in e-mail volume since readers could now comment on my work so easily (and publicly) that they didn’t bother anymore to write to me directly. I miss the mail, frankly. I get it that the new system is better for you, but it isn’t as much fun for me.
Then in the last year something new has happened, which I see as the combined rise of mobile Internet technology and Facebook. While smartphones have made us more e-mail-enabled than ever, I think people are actually sending less total e-mail as a result, substituting SMS texting and mobile use of social networks.
Facebook has brought for non-professional writers in us the same e-mail effect I saw when I jumped to WordPress: every wall or chat posting makes unnecessary at least one e-mail, maybe several.
And don’t forget that our youngest networked generation — teenagers — doesn’t e-mail at all, preferring the immediacy and intimacy of texting to almost anything else.
E-mail will never completely die, but I feel it has lost critical mass and is fading rapidly. That’s why when Facebook announced Titan, its new inter-user communication platform, they had such a hard time explaining what it was. Zuckerberg & Co. want us to see Titan as the universal communicator but they feel they can’t, at the same time, say that other media are dying as a result. They don’t want to be seen as the predators they are.
But predators are an essential part of any healthy ecosystem, remember. So this is all good, I guess.
Sad, but good.