Is email at death’s door?

A lot of Internet tech talkers are preparing a coffin for electronic mail. Some are even shoveling dirt on it. And while it’s pretty obvious that email is not dead dead at age 41, it’s looking pretty pallid.

Those of us who must swim through a daily email stream of spam, scams, advertising pitches and messages having nothing to do with our work or our lives have muttered that we wish it would go away and die. But the alternatives — texting and tweeting and IMing and such — don’t appeal to everyone.

IMing. We’re in such an all-fire hurry, as my mother used to say — so addicted to shortcuts and shorthand — that we can’t even type out the words “instant messaging.”

Blame it on the kids!

Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook, says, flatly, “Young people no longer use email.”

And if they don’t use it, the reasoning goes, it’s doomed. After all, today’s teens will be tomorrow’s tech-savvy, impatient adults.

“They prefer SMS,” Zuckerberg continues. “They want something more immediate like texting and chats for their conversations.” They? Zuckerberg is 28! A geezer.

SMS is more shorthand. It was coined to describe the “short message service” provided by telecom companies so the young’uns could send and receive short blurps of 160 characters or fewer — texts, we now call them — rather than bothering with tedious emails. And, of course, there’s Twitter and its 140-character limit, which is a free service on the Internet. Life in haiku!

There’s virtue in getting to the point, but what’s to become of nuance, the pleasure of writing or reading an artfully crafted thought, of storytelling?

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the forest. Pretty soon, she came upon a house. She knocked…

And? And? What happened next?

Sorry. Out of characters.

American society has become restless, antsy, almost caffeinated. Who has time for rich conversation?

You think I exaggerate? Check the sales of “energy drinks” and “energy shots.” Forbes magazine reports that Innovation Ventures, the maker of one such product, “5-Hour Energy,” is selling 1.4 million 59-mL bottles each day.

I first encountered the world of shorthand conversation decades ago on one of my jobs as a lowly street-crew worker, patching cracks, fixing potholes, cleaning storm drains. Supervisors, lolling in the truck while we toiled in the hot sun, chatted back and forth on what we called, for lack of a better word, “two-way radios.” They used a mix of military, police, and street-crew jargon, laced with nicknames.

“Yeah, Charlie. Greg. Gimme your 10-20 on that black job.” “Black” was short for asphalt.

They’d talk like that all day, even when they weren’t on their walkie-talkies. I imagined them arriving home at night and calling out, “Hey, Gloria, what’s the 10-35 on dinner?”

Now our whole society communicates in quick bursts, devoid of subtlety.

Which brings us back to the death knell of email.

Two years ago, independent researchers at the Pew Internet & American Life Project completed an extensive study of teens’ use of mobile phones. Not surprisingly, they found that “text messaging is exploding” in that age group as “a vital form of daily communication with friends.” Almost nine of 10 teens with cellphones texted every day.

All day long, in many cases. Pew reported that “a typical teen sends about 50 texts per day.” Cryptic texts, not emails. Many teenagers barely used their cellphones to make phone calls. “The only person I call is my dad,” one teen reported. “He doesn’t know how to text yet. So I just call him.”

You can guess which form of communication is LEAST likely to be used by teens.


A full 41 per cent of teenage respondents in the Pew survey said they never used email to communicate with their friends. “Email is almost exactly like how it sounds” to a young person, technology writer Damien Douani noted last year: “a mere electronic version of traditional paper mail with a mailbox and ‘carbon copies’ (CC).”

In other words, so last century.

Email is not made for easy interaction, collaborating, or coordinating, Douani continued. Its overuse has “resulted in watering down its significance. Even though there may be measures to prevent spam, so much of what is received goes directly into the trash.”

And “the volume of emails we send and receive is unsustainable for business,” Thierry Breton, CEO of the information-technology company Atos Origin, proclaimed last year. In February, he announced plans to eradicate company email within three years.

“Email is on the way out,” he said.

“What’s the matter with Email?” Jill Duffy asked in PC Magazine last December. Frankly, email is wasteful. Sure, it doesn’t require chopping down trees like paper mail, but it creates a mess of data that often winds up in the hands of people who don’t need it. Those recipients waste their time reading messages just in case they do pertain to them, or more likely, deleting emails as a never-ending struggle to clear their inbox of irrelevant clutter. In both cases, the clock is ticking and the meter is running.

Ah, yes. The clock. So much to do. So little time. Less is more, so write less. Blathering on in an email is ineffective and wasteful of your time and that of the recipient.

At work, I’m seeing an increase in bursts of information. Like fireworks, they pop up on my computer screen. And we use a program called Google Talk to communicate with our editors and close colleagues that’s another bleep-and-blurp system. It alerts you the instant someone has “messaged” you. And you blurp right back.

While there’s no limit on the number of words or characters one can send, most of these exclamations are short, on the old “KISS” theory that it’s best to “keep it simple, stupid.”

Here in Washington, Ted Leonsis, the owner of two professional sports teams — the ice-hockey Capitals and the basketball Wizards — was an avid, longtime emailer. An Internet pioneer at America Online, better known as AOL, Leonsis is at ease with the medium. He used it to promote his teams, comment on the comings and goings of players and coaches, and especially to chat one-on-one with fans. I once wrote him to complain about an announcer whose work I found substandard, and he replied within minutes, countering my criticisms point by point.

But earlier this month, Leonsis announced he was “pulling the plug” on email. “I just found myself spending an hour or two hours every day,” he told the Washington Post, “and it wasn’t helpful any more. I’m finding that meeting with people one-on-one, being on message boards, reading comments [online], it’s just a better, more efficient way.”

Most of us who aren’t multimillionaire executives have also tired of the daily drill of winnowing email wheat from chaff, only to have to reply to the 20 or 30 or 40 messages of substance that are left. And they keep coming, like ants lining up for their turn at the sugar in the pantry, all day long.

Email is overwhelming people — and not just teenagers — to the point that they’re scrambling for alternatives. Google tried to develop one called “Google Wave,” that involved a thread of text, photos, and “gadgets.” You could read, join, and comment on the wave at any time, and then propel it forward.

Not enough people did. Google discontinued the wave early this year. Observers concluded that it had too many features at a time when busy people craved simplicity.

No one knows for sure whether email will join a long line of communication marvels that once seemed indispensable and indestructible, only to become outmoded, archaic, and finally just plain dead: Cave pictographs. Smoke signals. Mail delivery by stagecoach. The telegram. Faxes. Handwritten letters.

They’re goners, or on the way out the door.

I’ve actually kept count of the number of penned personal letters I’ve received this year. It wasn’t hard. The number is three. In turn, I have sent one. “Penmanship teacher” must be right up there along with “telegrapher” and “typewriter repairman” among obsolete occupations.

Email software designer, too, before long.


(Photo: Su-Laine/