Has the Use of E-Mail Peaked?

By Brian Burns - Published, November 29, 2009

Historically, each generation expands the use of the communication inventions from the previous generation. Communication has evolved from cave drawings and carvings, to smoke signals and music (such as drumbeats, chants and yodeling); to written inscriptions; to letters distributed by foot, horseback, ships and railroad. Morse code revolutionized communication through the telegraph and line-of-sight light flashes.

The traditionalist generation, those born prior to the early 1950s, experienced the transition from paper correspondence to radios, telephones and television. Baby Boomers ushered in the use of computer networks, fax machines, e-mail, listservs, bulletin boards, chat and the Internet. Millennials are extending the use of the Internet to provide global communication in the form of text, instant and simple messaging, wikis, blogs and other social media.

Until the late 1980s, office workers were accustomed to using official letters and memoranda typed on typewriters and stored in file cabinets; using handwritten notes often thumbtacked to a board or paper-clipped to papers; using the phone for informal communication; and congregating by the water cooler for office gossip. Mimeograph machines and photocopiers duplicated documents. Transparencies and light projectors were used to present information. A blackberry was a fruit, a tweet was a sound a bird made, a tweeter was a high-pitched speaker for a hi-fi stereo and a palm device was a pen or pencil.

Beginning in the 1980s, personal computers began to replace typewriters, "stickies" replaced thumbtacks and paper clips, and photocopiers and printers replaced mimeograph machines. Shared file systems began to replace file cabinets, and many secretaries and office assistants were displaced by office automation assistants and office automation tools. Voice mail and electronic mail were introduced and blurred the line between official and unofficial correspondence and documents. E-mail became the easy, ad hoc way to communicate, store and distribute information.

The positive aspects of automation are that employees could send, receive and respond to information requests and direction at any time without having to be physically located with the sender. Telecommuting and alternative work schedules became feasible. As wireless solutions improved, pagers emerged, which were replaced by cell phones, which converged with e-mail, calendar functions, the Internet and other services available on personal digital assistants or palmtops.

On the negative side, the blur between official and unofficial correspondence, a lack of enterprise document management, and the ease of attaching big files and distributing them to many e-mail addresses, made records management and electronic discovery far more difficult.

E-mail trails became long and a business's ability to control how many copies were sent and received, where the copies ended up, and how much storage was required was limited.

With 2010 on the horizon, Web 2.0 tools and cloud computing will become embedded in the business environment. Does this mean that e-mail is dead? No, but it does mean that the use of e-mail has peaked and that the use of Web 2.0 tools will gradually become predominant. This is no different than the rise and fall of other evolutionary tools such as Morse code, the telephone, typewriter, newspaper and live television broadcasts. These technologies are still used today, but not as the primary tool or to the degree that they were used in the past.

E-mail cannot be considered by itself. It is one tool in the evolving e-messaging environment, which includes standard mailbox tools such as e-mail, calendars, contact lists, task lists and notes. It also includes voice mail, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), instant/text/simple messaging, fax integration and file/document sharing. Added to e-messaging are new Web 2.0 tools such as wikis, blogs, Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds and social media sites.

Why has e-mail peaked? Approximately 80 million Millennials now exceed the approximate 75 million Baby Boomers. For Millennials, it is easier to post information on a social media site for their friends and colleagues to see, or send a text message, than it is to open up an e-mail, select a list of users, type and attach information, send the e-mail and wait for a reply.

Baby boomers are accustomed to using e-mail for official and unofficial correspondence. It was easier for them to use e-mail than to use a typewriter or dictate a letter and then proofread it.

Social media sites are organized to socialize information. For example, wikis allow authorized users to edit the information in one location. When e-mail is used to edit documents, version control and aggregation of multiple comments are time consuming and cumbersome. E-mail stores and forwards information to specific users who can reply or forward the same or updated information to others.

Wikis and blogs open up a dialogue in a single location where authorized users can contribute to the conversation and content and compare each edited version and comments. This method results in a more democratic approach to editing information, allowing more subject matter experts to participate, more informed opinions and facts to be presented and a larger consensus to be reached.

Consequently, the playing field is leveled. Autocratic media is replaced with democratic dialogue, making information more transparent to the community of interest.

Brian Burns is a member of the Senior Executive Service. He is on detail to the Department of the Navy Chief Information Officer as deputy CIO for emerging technology from the Department of Education.

Related CHIPS Magazine