Email and why it’ll never disappear

By Matt Cornock

Like an old faithful dog, email still persists as one of the fundamental communication methods online. But is it’s time limited? The attempts to create what is effectively a microcosm of the internet with Facebook (as one blog depicted rather well in 2011), would suggest that Facebook messaging should have surpassed the need for email by now. However, the reality is that internet users are still using a variety of communication methods. In this post I’ll share some musings on this issue.

Email exists for the wafflers

Some of my email recipients will testify that I do waffle on a bit. I hope they see it as a delightful, if somewhat meandering read, but email was designed for text. Lots of it. Email comes with formatting, structure, spell-check(!), the ability to search the text quickly, sort into folders/labels, BCC, and so much more. Could you imagine trying to convey detailed, methodical instructions via Windows Live Messenger or Facebook? Or keeping an archive of sensitive, world-domination discussions? And, let’s not forget spam filtering.

Email’s functionality and its perceived (if sometimes misplaced) sense of security sets it apart from in-site communication methods like Facebook messages, VLE-based tools or instant messaging. It’s a separate entity, not plagued by privacy settings or limited by how many characters the scripting system can cope with. Email is essentially the digital letter, as opposed to the telephone line or shouting down the street.

With smart phones having dependable, quick-to-use email clients, email has also confidently made steps into mobile communication in a way that wasn’t originally envisaged. Possibly email is rivalling text message for non-social mobile communication. Whist it is clear that most people will still tend to use a full size keyboard for any substantial email message, mobile email has softened the formality that used to exist with the medium. It is common now to see business emails with little regard for the letter-based salutations and sign-offs of less than ten years ago, instead replaced with a disregard for sentence casing and a trailing ‘Sent from my iPhone’. 

Essentially though, email allows you to pick and choose what platform you use, what service provider you choose and your own management system. Email is a very personal thing – different from the templated, format-stripped, uniformity of in-site messaging systems.

Email exists for the file-sharers

Ok, so I will be the first to admit that email is not designed for file sharing. It never was, Nonetheless, email has done a sterling job of coping with small attachments (less than 20MB in most cases) for the past few decades. If you’re not fussed about document control, or perhaps don’t even know what document control is, then email has always provided a (perceivably) secure and quick way of flinging digital paperwork around. 

Would you ever consider sending that super-sensitive memo via Facebook’s file attachments?

Services like Dropbox, Google Docs/Drive, iCloud, and whatever Microsoft’s offering is called these days, have all helped make file sharing a doddle. However, for the less experienced internet user, email remains a one-stop-shop. Arguably, this is where Facebook, Google+ and similar sites are starting to chip away. Instead of users basing the internet communication with email accounts, they use social networking accounts instead.

Email exists because… somehow it’s part of our online identity

For some time I’ve been a little perplexed as to why you still need an email account to sign up to any of the big social networks. Anyone, anywhere can whip up an email account for free, even using made up details if you fancy breaching the terms and conditions, on the big three free email providers (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft). If that sounds like too much trouble, then pubic spam-dump boxes through mailinator.com is your answer (though I wouldn’t recommend for anything personal of course). So, why does a social network which is very persistent on making sure accounts are held by real people with real identities still insist on an email account?

More than that though, as mentioned before, email is personal. You create your own email address, your own avatar in text-form. This is particularly true of young people’s first email accounts… you know the ones that you sort of regret having to add to job/college application forms. They might include words like ‘sparklefairy’ or ‘somthing-inator’, probably with the year of your birth or a random sequence of numbers stuck on the end. There’s also a sense of credos about which provider you use. I remember that anyone with an at-aol.com email address was to by pitied for you knew they had actually put the 3.5″ diskette that popped through their letterbox into their computer. Your first email is the very beginning of your online identity. It would be a shame if that identity became the uniformity of a single social network…

Which leads me here

I started writing this post a week ago, but since then this rather aptly timed piece of news has dropped in. Facebook has changed users’ email address on their profiles to an at-facebook.com one. The automatic switch set the Facebook email visible (set to friends only) and my normal email hidden from my profile. I wonder if they’ll be doing the same with my links to my website in the future too? However, I personally prefer my normal email. I don’t want messages to get lost in Facebook’s somewhat hit-n-miss messaging system, with the hope that I might end up getting a notification sent to my real email to tell me I have a message. Facebook is renowned for its two steps forward, one step retract approach to pushing the boundaries of internet use, however when you change how people how to present themselves online you are bound to ruffle a few feathers.

p.s. I wonder if you can create a Facebook account with a Facebook email…

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