Monday, April 30, 2012

EMail : the social networking software that refused to die

I remember when Google+ was new, a number of people were, perhaps in an excess of excitement, suggesting it would be not just a Facebook killer, but a replacement for email. This was not a totally crazy idea, because at the functional level, there are broad similarities: email has contacts and mailing lists, G+ has circles; email has messages, G+ posts. So in theory, one could easily replace email with Google+, and in fact it could be a replacement for most of our day-to-day communication.

Alternatively, Facebook could be, indeed wants to be, a replacement for email, and they are approaching 1 billion users. Facebook provides a Message feature for private messaging  between individuals and groups. You can even have a Facebook email address so that people not on Facebook can send you a message, and vice-versa. [Unfortunately, FB Messages has a horrible interface with almost no features.]

So why, when almost nobody has a good word for email, does it persist?

The most obvious reason is ubiquity: just about anybody you need to contact has an email address, while only the smart people have joined G+. :) [At time of writing, the best guess is the membership is approaching 200 million.] Many email users are not (strange as it may sound) avid users of social media, so unlikely to be on either Facebook or G+.

A second, equally powerful reason is the if-it-ain't-broke argument. For all the I-hate-email angst you'll hear from any email user, and despite the relentless spam, as a means of communication, it works. It's well understood, and used correctly, it's reliable. 

And a third reason is, email is not yet ready to die. The concept is old, the protocols also, but the technology has not yet stagnated. EMail clients continue to improve, spam filters are doing an excellent job of eliminating most spam. For someone like me, who started with the Unix command line "mail" program, and progressed through elm, pine, Eudora, Netscape, Outlook, Thunderbird and now gmail, I've seen steady and continuous improvement in clients. And gmail continues to improve: gmail filters are brilliant, and are streets ahead of anything offered on the social networking platforms. As one who receives several hundred emails daily, who's work schedule is built around email, I don't think anything else could replace it at this time.

[Having said that, let me say I am equally happy receiving messages from people through G+, Twitter or even Facebook. But no way do I want to see all my work emails there.]

I think where we're at right now is this: that email has a place and a value which cannot be taken by anything else yet. But at the same time, for simple, uncomplicated casual communication between friends, social media beats it hands down. Horses for courses. And be happy that there are now more horses in the race.

[Ironically, perhaps, I'm writing this blog post in Gmail and sending it from there to Blogger. So sue me. It works.]