Clash of the titans: Email v social media

Heart monitor Vital signs: Is your email inbox hanging on by a thread, or are reports of its imminent demise greatly exaggerated?

The headlines were unequivocal - Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had announced that email is dead.

Technology of Business

The truth however was a little more prosaic. At the launch of the social network's new messaging platform, he had said "we don't think a modern messaging system is going to be email", and that the new system was "not email".

Mr Zuckerberg wasn't the first to suggest that email is obsolete, and neither has he been the last.

Email has come a long way from the first message sent by programmer Ray Tomlinson across a network back in 1971.

Senior citizen

The @ symbol separated the names of user and machine, and the message was sent from one machine to another over the precursor to the internet, the ARPAnet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network).

Today email is ubiquitous. Technology market researchers Radicati see the number of email accounts worldwide growing from 3.1bn in 2011 to nearly 4.1bn by 2015.

Mark Zuckerberg Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg claims his network's messaging platform is not email

Email use is lower among teenagers - but whether this changes when they start work is unknown.

So just how likely is it that the creaking inboxes that haunt many of us will soon be replaced?

Writing history

One man with more reason than most to have an opinion on the matter is email specialist Mimecast's chief scientist Nathaniel Borenstein, co-creator of the Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) protocol.

This is the internet standard that lays down how messages are formatted. It lets your email contain different characters, have attachments, and contain other types of files, among other things.

Mr Borenstein says it is used more than a trillion times a day.

"Email is still growing," he says. "There's no real sign that social is making a major dent in it.

"For the most part I think they fill different functions, but that they connect with each other. I think they're symbiotic. I'm reluctant to cast them into opposition."

They may have more in common than you think.

Nathaniel Borenstein Nathaniel Borenstein: "People have asked me if I get money every time MIME is used." (He doesn't)

"Nowadays people will tell you that email is something sent to a name at a domain. And that was not the case certainly 20 years ago," says Mr Borenstein.

"Twenty years ago there were lots of independent email systems with different addressing schemes that either didn't interoperate at all or had complicated gateways.

"So over time people have come to think that email is this one thing with universal addressing, and universal addressing is good, but that's not the definition of email."

This would mean that messaging systems like Facebook's could equally be seen as email.

Unlimited storage

The overflowing inbox should also be a thing of the past, thanks to cloud computing.

"There are business, legal and technical reasons [for restricting inboxes]," says Mr Borenstein.

"The technical reasons no longer hold water. It's increasingly the case that you just can't begin to believe that there's not enough storage."

You've got mail

  • 2011: 3.1 billion email accounts
  • 2015: predicted 4.1 billion
  • Typical business user sends and receives 105 messages daily
  • 2011: 2.6 billion instant messaging accounts worldwide
  • 49% of email users live in the Asia Pacific region

Source: The Radicati Group, Inc. May 2011

Social media's strength, according to Mr Borenstein, is allowing you to communicate with customised groups of people.

"They're both useful for business. I do believe that social media is going to be used more and more in business. I don't think that Facebook has gotten that right, I don't even think that Google+ has got that right and they do a better job.

"Surprisingly perhaps the ones I know who have done the best job are IBM with LotusLive, which hasn't got that much traction," says Mr Borenstein (who until recently worked for IBM on Lotus software).

Social future?

Not everyone is as sunny as Mr Borenstein when it comes to the future of email, however.

Lee Bryant is co-founder of Headshift, the world's biggest social business consultancy. He believes email's dominance over business communications is coming to an end.

"When email was first developed it was an excellent point-to-point communication tool when nothing else existed," says Mr Bryant.

"I think we've reached the stage where email as means of communicating is overloaded. I think we will see what happens on email today transitioning towards various kinds of both internal and consumer facing social tools."

Young people using computers Young people aged 12-17 are using email less, according to comScore

These are "flow-based" tools such as wikis, micro-blogging and internal social networks, according to Mr Bryant.

"I think fundamentally one of the biggest problems is that social tools communicate slightly more in the open, they create ambient knowledge and ambient awareness for others who are not even in the conversation," says Mr Bryant.

"Email doesn't do that, it's quite a lonely medium.

"You receive a series of messages, you hold them in the inbox and have to move, delete or act on every one. Whereas with flow tools the flow moves past you whether or not you actually open the messages."

But does this mean that important messages will flow past never to be seen again?

"Arguably," says Mr Bryant. "But there's quite a bit of anecdotal evidence that social networks are actually very effective at surfacing the right information or the right things that you need to deal with."

Nevertheless he says he doesn't see email going away anytime soon.

"You narrow down email primarily to what it was designed for, which is one-to-one communications."

Shiny pennies

Head of Microsoft's Envisoneers team and self-confessed "social media luvvie", Dave Coplin, is not impressed.

"I think that email is dead when it comes to social media in the same way that snail mail was dead when it came to email."

Dave Coplin Dave Coplin: "I use email less because I have social media but I can't run... life without it"

"Time and again, it's always the same thing. Enter the bright shiny new technology stage right, therefore old boring technology must exit stage left."

"Of course it never happens that way."

He says the way we use technology evolves.

"When all we had was email we would use email for everything.

"Now we've got this wonderful selection of different kinds of communication. What's nice is that our email starts to be for those communications that do truly need the kind of functionality that email offers."

Mr Coplin says there are lessons to be learnt.

"The functionality offered by email is in many ways not well represented by social media.

Start Quote

Everything has its place and it's really understanding which is the right tool for the job”

End Quote Dave Coplin Microsoft

"The asynchronous nature is really important, the ability to attach things, the ability to have a secure conversation, all of those things are crucial."

Mr Coplin sees the tools we use to communicate converging.

"We will have this universal communications platform that means if I'm talking to you via Facebook, Twitter, email or whatever their replacements are, it will all be presented as a common thread, so you couldn't kind of care less what channel they're on, what platform they're using, communication will flow."

But however shiny the future may be, email is in rude health in the present, according to Mr Coplin.

"The key thing for me is to dispel the myth that a lot of social media luvvies would have you believe, that email is dead. To me it's shiny penny syndrome.

"Everything has its place and it's really understanding which is the right tool for the job."

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