Open Thread: The End of Email?

email death

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg sparked a firestorm this week with her bold assertion that email "is probably going away."

But she's not the first to make this claim. Just do a quick Google search, and you'll find plenty of bloggers warning of email's demise. (You'll also find loads of puns saying we should "Google Wave" goodbye to email—so much for that.) Even the Wall Street Journal published an article last year arguing that Facebook and Twitter were now king among online communication tools ("Email has had a good run...but its reign is over"), echoing Sandberg's beliefs.

Is email really finished?

According to Sandberg, only 11% of teens email daily, a statistic she sees as a sign of the coming transition to SMS and social networks. But in 2005, another study found that less than 5% of American teens aged 12-17 preferred email over instant messaging for digital communication. Now, five years later, many of those teens are entering the business world—but we haven't seen AIM, Yahoo Messenger, and G-Chat overtake good old-fashioned email.

At least not yet.

A study by the Nielsen Co. of email consumption in Australia, Brazil, several European countries, and the U.S., found that usage rose 21% between August 2008 to August 2009, reaching 276.9 million people. During that same period, users of social-network sites leaped 31% to 301.5 million people. Because of this sharp growth, Internet communities like Facebook are eating away at the amount of time users spend communicating through traditional messenging services: Between 2003 and 2009, time spent on email sites dropped 41%; social networks, on the other hand, now represent 22% of total user Internet time—up 24% since last year.

Another recent Nielsen study, however, found that social networks have actually helped increase email consumption. "We decided to churn some quick data to test our hypothesis that 'Consumption of social media decreases email use,'" explained Jon Gibs, VP of media analytics for Nielsen. "It actually appears that social media use makes people consume email more, not less, as we had originally assumed."

To further complicate the situation, tech market research firm the Radicati Group released a report in April which estimated that social networks will grow at a remarkable pace in the next few years—but it also showed that worldwide email usership would balloon as well. "The number of worldwide email accounts is projected to increase from over 2.9 billion in 2010, to over 3.8 billion by 2014," the report said. "However, Social Networking currently represents the fastest growing communication technology among both consumers and business users, with over 2.1 billion accounts in 2010 which are projected to grow to over 3.6 billion accounts by 2014."

The Radicati Group's report also showed how daily email use has been dropping for both consumers and business people—clearly an effect of social networks.

Average Number of Consumer Emails Sent/Received per User/Day:

So is Sandberg right? Are social networks and SMS replacing traditional messenging services? Is it even fair to pit these services against each other?

After all, what is "email" anyway? Today, services such as Gmail now include elements of chat, status updates, document editing functionality, and more—it's impossible to clearly define what makes a social network, and what makes an email service.

"There's a lot of grey area," says Todd Yamasaki, a market research analyst at Radicati. "It's the combination of everything, not just social networks, that's contributing to this decrease in email usage."

"[But] I think what Sandberg said was a bit premature."

So far, it seems the evidence is inconclusive. What's your take?

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10 Comments

  • angiecaunce

    While IM reduces the "quick comment" inter office communications and Facebook reduces some of my friend to friend emails, my inbox still fills with over 50 relevant business emails a day. It's my primary method for communicating with my clients and they with me. I can't see that going anywhere, nor would I want it to.

    I think this is wishful thinking on behalf of the social media giants. It's not an all or nothing Facebook OR email world. And email spam is nothing compared to Twitter DM spam. Yikes!

  • BasZurburg

    Interesting, but email will probably stay for a long time, although the usage will drop. With new communication and conversation techniques emerging, people will select the most effective medium for the purpose.
    Spam is still a big problem of email.Other techniques might reduce the spam.

  • Lauren Rutley

    I think this is weak analysis if using it to make assumptions about a medium that allows us to communicate with a large amount of people, directly, with more than 140 characters. Why not try and look at how much is consumed (ie opened, read, etc) rather than how much is sent?

  • teresa

    Email is a conversation tool and thus qualifies as social media in my mind. For business, I think email is here to stay for quite some time with email marketing automation on the rise (http://bit.ly/4fbNMd). Increasingly, we'll see more email apps. I agree with earlier comment by Jacob that email will become a different animal. It's still my preference as the hub of my online communications.

  • Jacob Ukelson

    Email is the tool of choice in business for executing the unstructured, ad-hoc processes that make up the bulk of knowledge worker processes. Most business users will continue to use email as their primary business collaboration vehicle, but email will be a very different animal - it will evolve to better support knowledge worker processes, not just one off messaging.

    ActionBase ActionMail, Novell Pulse (and of course Google Wave in the consumer space) are all early indicators of this trend.

  • David Lavenda

    Email is not going anywhere soon. Not by a long shot. Certainly not in the business context. I have been hearing this "young people entering the workforce are changing communications patterns" for the last few years, but it will a long time before that change takes hold. The huge flaw in the argument is assuming that because social networks are so popular at home, people will flock to them at work. It's just not true, because the social and organizational dynamics are vastly different in that context. And it will be many years until enough of the Facebook generation enter the workplace to create a critical mass of 'natural collaborators.'
    Take note of what Tim Walters, an analyst for Forrester Research, said last month in his blog (http://blogs.forrester.com/tim..., about vendors who are suggesting "retaining Email as the addictive workplace app, but avoid the deficiencies of Email by making it smarter, social, dynamic, and an interactive part of business processes instead of just a means of exchanging messages about processes. Just about everywhere you look today, vendors like Google, Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, and Novell are announcing product releases, extensions, betas, or visions that take your tired old Email interface and pump it up with various combinations of chat, presence, voice and video, threads, profiles, and in-place application functionality."

  • Erik

    Attempting to communicate meaningfully through FB and Twitr is like trying to hold a meeting in the stands at a sporting event.

  • Yaacov Cohen

    The real question is not if email is going away but: how email needs to evolve with the stunning growth of social networks? Email needs to become more social and more collaborative and for this the email client needs to become a true collaboration console. This can be done through email plug-in software. This is actually where Google, Microsoft and Lotus are going with their email offering.

  • Guy

    Sometimes I wish email would go away as it seems so clumsy compared to other ways of communicating online. However in business there is no serious alternative at the moment in B2B or B2C environments.

  • Mike Kelley

    E-mail will stick around, and yes I do believe that those comments were premature. When I was younger, I didn't e-mail nearly as much as I did when I entered the working world. They'll start emailing a whole lot more once they get into college, etc, and beyond. It may decline, due to the ease of social networking and mobile communication but "the end is nigh" is a little ridiculous to go claiming.