Remembering Email

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Somehow we keep thinking email will survive the social wave. It is the ultimate social tool, we reason. It’s an open standard, whatever that really means. It’s ubiquitous, you know, like Flash. Makes my head hurt to think about it going away. Nope, email is bigger than the Beatles.

Yet the signs are everywhere. George Colony sees social running out of time per day and people, but something will give. Email or phone? Email. People use social to determine whether you will answer the phone. People use email to communicate in the absence of more social metadata. It comes down to this: will social absorb email or the other way around?

I spend roughly 75% of my computing time on the iPad/iPhone. The covert Blackberry under the desk in meetings has been replaced by the glance at push notifications as they light up the iPad or scroll in from the top if I’m reading or browsing. Email is still there, a strong tie or second by a nose in attention and even overt interruption. But what email doesn’t have more than outweighs its position in my time hierarchy.

Email is about a defined relationship, or a management tool for broadcast information. Newsletters and media pings take up the majority of the Gmail flow, where I aggregate everything except Salesforce corporate email and calendar. Both are meshed into iOS mail, with the Exchange mail configured to generate push notifications on delivery and Gmail batched thereafter. In aggregate I’m more or less at the mercy of the agenda of the external, the unanticipated, the insistent, the invite, the reminder.

At some point, the need to further reprioritize this stream overwhelms the reluctance to write a filter or more usefully add a label. But “doing my email” becomes an exercise in deflection rather than sensing the flow of the external as compared to my internal sense of what’s going on. CCs add some level of group awareness along with a dose of political jousting, but mostly the signal is either noisy or extremely tactical.

Strategically, social has many more attributes that heighten the value of individual objects. These include comments, Likes, retweets, @mentions, and direct messages. Given their integration of citation and identity, these signals move beyond CCs and BCCs to build a sense of social traction that carries with it a history and context for new messages. Given two movies to choose from, I’ll go with the one that best rolls up the opinions of those I respect, and often, don’t respect. Those “that’s the last time I listen to you”s are among the most valuable to harvest, and are only useful because people keep tweeting.

There’s a social history in email, but it’s based on a structure of authority, presumed or otherwise. It’s an FYI not FOI as in Our. @mentions are a blend of both, alerting both the mentioned and those interested or following. Direct messages are the most email-like, but even there they provide shared social history as a back channel commentary on group business. And groups go beyond email in avoiding forking and pruning without a consensus.

As tools such as Flipboard blur the distinction between the social channels, they make it harder and harder to carve out time for a personal channel opaque to search engines and realtime advertising. Streaming services disintermediate email by establishing a social relationship that avoids physical purchases in favor of app-triggered notifications. Businesses can now compare the accumulated value of social versus email, and are investing in the former not just in technology but people. Robert Scoble is better known by his Twitter handle than his email address.

Today email serves as a notification service for social. I get social notifications both via push on mobile and email as an archive. The more efficient push gets, the more email becomes a redundant service. On iOS devices, I am now using push alerts to get to email more frequently than opening the mail client itself. I see the alerts flow through on the tablet or phone without having to log in, and use my security code only on items I have particular interest in. Swiping a missed phone call notification saves even more time, automatically calling the number back. These more efficient, actionable gestures are the new normal.

Our kids already understand that email is fading. They model the world on Facebook, tracking invites in their message stream or as event invites. At a glance they see who’s coming, who’s not, and why not. A calendar invite carries none of that context unless you go to a web page, which for those too young to remember is an early form of social media. Foursquare tells you you’re late or on time based on who you know showing up or not. GPS is people.

Our kids have the advantage of not having to deconstruct email and calendar. They don’t have to move their friends into the new paradigm; they’re already there with them. They don’t have to create authority, influence, and attention; they already have a rich shared history. We, however, have some work ahead of us. We need to identify and convert a rich subset of people from using email with us to sharing a social space with us.

@mentions are the most valuable tool we have for this task. You can establish the desire for a connection with a series of such references, not just to a single target but to a group you identify and alert communally. Many of these @mentions already have bidirectional follows, making direct messages possible. New tools such as Chatter with its external group technology let you expand direct messages into secure conversations. Email takes more clicks, lacks social metadata, and has no stable collaborative history.

I have no dog in the hunt for whether social will prevail or email will survive. Radio still survives in the Age of Video, and Web will not be crushed by App. But once we get absorbed person by person into social, one channel at a time, there’s no percentage in going back. Once I figure out the simplest path across the stream, social signals begin to popularize that method. Perhaps it will gain momentum, or be absorbed by something slightly better. Email will remain as an important early step, like SIP as the first stage of setting up a call. Once the channel is established, no need to go back to email. Once you get redirected from Web to App, the next time you go direct into the app.

Change is ratified by the difficulty in rolling back. What was once hard to imagine let alone accept can become so obvious as to be ignored. In a world dominated by mobile, the invisible triumphs in the cloud, is passed along as entertainment, and then ratified by economy of scale in time saved. The reason email will disappear is because it is the single most effective tool for moving to social.