The End of Email

Like others, in the past week I’ve noticed a major uptick in the spam I receive on longstanding email addresses. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve configured Gmail to scoop up the mail from those boxes so it can do its own junk mail sorting, and then I POP the mail into my Eudora client from Gmail. It’s taken me from downloading email where more than 9 out of 10 are spam to fewer than 1 out of 10 as spam — with the spam sitting harmlessly on Gmail.

But this is a good time to point out something beyond the cat-and-mouse of spam-and-filter: email is dying.


Email is the last great “shared hallucination” applications of the Internet. The Internet itself is a shared hallucination — built to allow the routing of packets without any particular central coordination or backbone — and first uses to which it was put are similarly able for anyone to step up to the plate and join. Internet Relay Chat can be done with anyone setting up a chat server; Usenet newsgroups — what we know today as message boards and what dimly live on within Google Groups — could be created by anyone, and their propagation would depend on the individual decision of each newsgroup server operator on whether to subscribe to it.

Newsgroups and IRC were overrun by spammers and crooks, and they have been subsumed by alternatives. There are still some people who use IRC for nostaglic purposes or because they’re on very low bandwidth, but its most prominent use today is as a way for zombie computers to listen in at a designated server and channel for instructions from its master. Newsgroups appear like the walking dead themselves, with most of the conversations they hosted now carried on elsewhere. The alternatives to each are within walled gardens, proprietary alternatives of the sort that used to run on CompuServe and AOL. Indeed, a lot of Web 2.0 is based within proprietary servers, available for outside use only with the ongoing indulgence of the sponsoring firms.

So too goes email. If one were denied email in 1997 it would eliminate much of the Internet’s usefulness. Today it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. Indeed, most students today rarely use email, preferring instant messaging, Facebook, Myspace, and other private messaging attached to a proprietary service. The benefit of these alternatives is that, because they’re run by a central source, there’s an extra custodian who can take a hard line against spam and other abuse. Myspace doesn’t do such a great job at it, but try spamming on Facebook and you’ll quickly lose your account.

The drawback is that the vision behind a common application like email — one where any PC can announce itself as a mailserver — is dismissed. And as natural monopolies form, there will be new gatekeepers who can implement content control, who can decide to charge or not, or who can terminate or deny membership. Email is clearly broken, and the various anti-spam tricks designed to extend its life can only go so far. But it’s sad to see the last great shared app eclipsed. …JZ

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12 Responses

  1. Andrea says:

    I think this post is really interesting, but…

    “Indeed, most students today rarely use email, preferring instant messaging, Facebook, Myspace, and other private messaging attached to a proprietary service.”

    Hm. Where did you draw this conclusion? Do you mean high school students or something? I can’t imagine trying to shift the things I do on email – especially the school related functions, like extracurricular organizing and faculty-and-career-related communications – to any of those incredibly informal channels, which are OK for friends, but not OK for anything “serious.” That seems to be true for my classmates too.

  2. Anthony says:

    “I can’t imagine trying to shift the things I do on email – especially the school related functions, like extracurricular organizing and faculty-and-career-related communications – to any of those incredibly informal channels, which are OK for friends, but not OK for anything “serious.” That seems to be true for my classmates too.”

    That’s also been my experience. Maybe Prof. Zittrain may or may not be correct in regards to high school students (don’t know enough about that generation to speculate), but I don’t know a single college or graduate student who rarely uses email and communications almost exclusively through Facebook.

    Furthermore, even if high school students rarely use email in favor of Facebook or MySpace, I doubt it’s because of the benefits of an “extra custodian” (if anything I think most teenagers / twentysomethings would view this as a negative) but rather it just happens to be what all their friends use. Once the network effect is dilluted (e.g. you graduate and your new friends use a wide variety of applications) and you have to communicate a lot more with people outside your social circle who you don’t want to see your Facebook/MySpace profile (e.g. professors and co-workers) using email becomes a no-brainer.

    Of course it’s possible that the purpose of email will change, with instant messaging, social networking sites, etc. becoming the medium of choice for informal chat while email is left for more serious communications or communications that one would like to preserve. But I don’t think that means email is broken–it’s just different now.

  3. Anthony says:

    I should also mention that younger generations sending more IMs or using social networking sites more than they use email does not necessarily mean that email is on the decline among those generations or that those other communications are preferred over email. IMs, MySpace messages, etc. are not perfect substitutes for email–anecdotally, I know that virtually all the IM conversations I have with people are conversations that would not have otherwise taken place through email. If such conversations were to occur at all, it would have been over the phone (though even then many conversations would not have taken place because it’s only possible to have a limited number of cell phone conversations at the same time).

    Given that, one could argue that students in 2007 rely on or prefer email to an even greater extent than students did in 1997, but are also much more open to using other types of online communication and are better at multi-tasking (e.g. can easily keep 5 IM conversations going while they write a long email).

  4. Katie says:

    I wonder if what we’re seeing isn’t the death of e-mail but the stratification of e-mail – I can see people using Facebook to set up dinner plans or the like, and if Facebook adds real time chatting, which seems like only a matter of time, I can really imagine it taking off. But I have a hard time imagining Facebook as a way to communicate with employers or professors or other people who you want to imress – will e-mail become the “formal” form of communication? Maybe e-mail will be what we use for thank you notes (grandma is so picky about being thanked via Facebook poke), business communications, and wedding invites.

  5. mmm says:

    I think that the conclusions drawn here are quite overdrawn. First, for someone like me with a really low ICQ#, I can tell you that IM is really no better at filtering unwanted messages. Indeed, I all but quit using my IM programs a very long time ago.

    Second, text messaging is popular because cellphones and text messaging services are cheap. Give those same kids a Blackberry with unlimited data transmission and you’d see an increase in e-mail usage by that same group.

    Third, I think the protections offered by the social networking systems are eventually going to fail when there’s a desire not to have a vast number of accounts: myspace, facebook, linkedin, etc. They are only helpful if everyone you want has drank the same Kool-aid.

    Fourth, e-mail is considerably more effective at the mass recipient level. Sure, it’s easy to send an IM to your kid, but it’s entirely different than trying to send an IM to your entire family.

    Finally, there is something to be said for having more formal mechanisms of communications. IM is short sweet, etc, but it seems unlikely that anyone would use it for anything but the short and sweet. So from this one could conclude that any statistics comparing e-mail with IM will be fatally flawed. I’m not sure I’ve seen too many e-mails reading simply, “r u there?” whereas I’ve received lots of IMs/text messages like that.

  6. Bruce Boyden says:

    Email is still very much alive in the business world, I believe; I’d be very surprised to learn that senior partners and executives have suddenly switched over to IM and MySpace.

  7. Margaret says:

    e-mail is dying

    This is a ridiculous conclusion based on the experiences of teenagers and young adults who are not yet in the worlds of business and other post-adolescent communications.

    Will my daughter’s school start sending bills and other notices by IM, Facebook, and Myspace any time soon? I hardly think so. My dentist? My bank?

    I’m not familiar with the most powerful and feature-laden Blackberry and Treo types of phones, as all I have is a cell phone (without a camera, no less), but I also can’t imagine that my boss or co-workers would want to share documents in any way other than e-mail or hard copy.

    I don’t understand the reasoning behind this blog entry — that is, to draw the conclusion that “e-mail is dying” based on what a bunch of kids do because they are in school or don’t have real jobs yet. Does it make me a thirtysomething fuddy-duddy that I don’t “have a MySpace” (though I’ve had a vanity website since 1996) and my age-cohort pals organize get-togethers with a listserv rather than through IM?

  8. Hi Margaret – the thought is, wait until those kids grow up. Rock n’ roll was new, too, and most kids didn’t outgrow it. Five to ten years is enough for many of these kids to end up in the workforce, bringing their habits with them, rather than the other way around.

    I don’t doubt that full size keyboards will continue to exist for awhile, and that there will be ways to transfer files back and forth. It’s not the functionality that I’m talking about so much as the underlying architecture: one that is open to easy third-party participation vs. one that has a gatekeeper. …JZ

  9. Bruce Boyden says:

    Jonathan, I think the problem is that that sort of saps the meaning from “dying.” Think about kids who are 10 years old now. Let’s say they are all using IM and MySpace and do zero percent of their communication by e-mail. Sure, they’ll be lower-level corporate cogs in about 12 years, but they won’t be middle and upper-level managers, in a position for their preferences to actually count, until about 30 years or so from now. Technology then will probably be at least as different then as today’s technology is from 1977’s. I.e., not only will email not be very prevalent, at least in its current form, neither will IM or MySpace. We’ll all be transmitting information wirelessly using the HUD’s implanted in our skulls, or something, who knows.

  10. Yes, but email has been so central, and its ethos so different from what lies around the corner, that I think its fading is much more notable than the generic fact that a given technology can become obsolete. …JZ

  11. Margaret says:

    Jonathan:

    I better understand where you’re coming from, but I still don’t think that information disseminated via IM, Myspace, Facebook, etc., will easily earn the evidentiary status (for lack of a better term; I’m in my 1L summer right now) of e-mail. I don’t know if I can get a return receipt for an IM message, for example, though I guess I can traceroute the IP address that a good IM client reports to me. But a fake Facebook or Myspace profile can be mocked up in minutes — I did one just this afternoon on Myspace — so I generally don’t trust what I see there.

    I think I have two points about e-mail versus texting technologies (SMS, IM) and social networking sites. First, I can buy that a printed-out e-mail should be considered as valid a record of communication as a mailed paper letter or a fax; but I would not ascribe that status to a txt msg (lord knows it often takes my service provider three tries to get one through, and even then I’ll get a confirmation but it still may not reach the intended recipient’s phone). Second, I can look at the Path: information in the e-mail headers to trace down the real sender and time of a piece of e-mail (ah, the days of elm and vi); but that information is obscured in the social networking sites and free e-mail services. Subpoenas, schmubpoenas.

    I may still be missing your point, but I think it’s quite a stretch to say that “e-mail is dying.” It may be going the way of the formal written letter — I call or e-mail my parents and far-flung friends rather than write them — but I wouldn’t call a code blue just yet.

  12. Anthony says:

    “Yes, but email has been so central, and its ethos so different from what lies around the corner, that I think its fading is much more notable than the generic fact that a given technology can become obsolete.”

    I guess I still don’t still understand why you think email is fading, let alone dying. In your original post you said that students rarely use email, but the personal experiences of a few commentators contradicts this, and several other commentators have provided good explanations for why email is not fading even if younger generations don’t use it as much as MySpace or IM.

    However I still don’t see any evidence that teenagers today are actually sending fewer emails than teenagers 10 years ago. Nor has anyone posted evidence indicating that teenagers prefer MySpace and Facebook to email because of an additional gatekeeper who can filter spam and objectionable content (as I said earlier, my intuition is that most teenagers would view the presence of some nanny figure monitering their social networking pages and message pages to search of “bad” things to delete to be a huge negative — look at how college students have reacted to discovering that their professors, deans of students, undercover campus cops, etc. are on Facebook). So, I’m not really sure what you’re basing your assumptions on here.