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Email is dead! Long live… err… uhh…. hmmm… December 29, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in email, physics life.

You know when something is past when the old grey lady picks it up. Apparently e-mail is dead.

The problem with e-mail, young people say, is that it involves a boringly long process of signing into an account, typing out a subject line and then sending a message that might not be received or answered for hours. And sign-offs like “sincerely” — seriously?

Those of you around the web I’m sure have seen this – murmurs have been going on a long time about the death of email. Text – on the phone – has been taking over. You have to look no further than text message usage statistics to see this is very real… 1 in 3 ‘teens send more than 100 text messages a day. [I wasn’t able to find any recent over-all usage statistics for text, but this one is back in 2005] If you look at similar plots of # of cell phones out there, you’ll note the increase is faster – we are sending more of these messages than we used to. Facebook, which is attempting to be our communications hub, is altering how it does email – removing the subject line, etc. – making it more like text messaging. Hotmail and Gmail and Yahoo Mail have already gone through this and they continue further down this road.

I, of course, teach, and so am often in contact with lots of students… and they say the same thing. We’ve heard the comment “I only read my email because old people send me things, like my parents or professors.” (no, I’m not making that up…).

But, really, is email dead? Can it be so? Or is it a situational thing?

David McDowell, senior director of product management for Yahoo Mail … said this was less a generational phenomenon than a situational one. Fifteen-year-olds, for example, have little reason to send private attachments to a boss or financial institution.

This I can buy. Heck, I’m a huge user of email and I am religious about putting a subject on all my emails when I send them professionally. When I use Facebook email for a quick note to a friend of mine… almost never put a subject on it. I am definitely seeing more use of IM – especially now that Facebook has allowed 3rd parties to tap into its IM system – people often contact me through that system with questions or comments – for a quick chat about some physics gossip or where to find some paper, etc.

But with students – the next generation – it really does seem like a more fundamental change is occurring. At the moment, when they enter the work force, they are entering our world and so are, at some level, forced to adopt our model of e-mail usage. But that will change – us old people are living on borrowed time – at some point we will be living in their world. How will communication look? Will it look similar to today or will it be a continuous stream of constant interruptions as text messages roll in? Or will it be a mix of the two, depending on the topic and the kind of question that is being asked?

And second, how do you deal with the modern class? Say I have 250 students. I want to tell them to study chapters 1-7 for the exam later this week. Normally I’d blast a class-wide email. Should I be setting up a class fan-page on facebook (and not all of them will be members)? Get the phone number for them all so I can send a text (sounds like too much work)? Just post to a web page and assume they saw it?

My guess is that all those emails which people just add one “line” and then hit send on are going to become a thing of the past – they will become these text and IM’s we’ve been talking about. How is this for starters? In our experiments we have a number of email lists. The name of the email lists should double as a chat room. When you have a question you post to the chat room. If no one replies, you create a more detailed (and formal) email.

Other ideas?



1. Joe - December 30, 2010

Personally I am a second year Uni student and I see my email account as the hub of my professional life. I check it to get info on courses and to contact professors/bosses. Facebook and text are entirely my personal life.

I don’t think email will ever die but as even in my generation it is seen as the profression means of communication.

2. Gordon Watts - December 30, 2010

Joe – that is funny – facebook is taking over more and more of the little bits of my professional communication life. When a new paper comes out that causes some buzz there is a fb wall I go to to see what the discussion is, etc.

And do you use email as the hub of your professional life only because that is what we (your profs, etc.) are using? What if you were the prof? What would be the best way to talk to your students?

Huh. A fb page for every paper? 😉

3. Meredith - January 4, 2011

like this? I can’t remember the name of it now, but I used something similar at an off-site job I had 2 years ago, mainly for stuff everyone might find interesting. We used IM when we needed to talk in real-time, email for attachments and stuff that wasn’t so time-critical.

4. Gordon Watts - January 4, 2011

Meredith – yes, exactly like that!

5. Chip - January 9, 2011

I’m told that students tend to want to keep facebook for person things and not mix it up with faculty. Sure, you can use a facebook group and then you don’t have to friend your professor. I’m going to try an experiment this semester: twitter and a blog. I’m insisting that students get a twitter account and follow a particular hashtag. What I need to tell a class is either 140-characters-worth, or I can point to where I want them to learn more. With a 3rd party, you can archive twitter messages by hashtag or username, so there’s a record.

I also love IM, but I think that students are now more inclined to text message than fill their screens with IM windows like the last century.

Glad to see you’re blogging again.

6. Chip - January 9, 2011

um…”personal things”.

7. Dan Sealana - February 5, 2011

I usually don’t even bother sending “old-fashioned” email to my friends in college because I assume they’ll never check it.

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