Hard Questions For Email’s “Lost Generation”

College students like myself came up communicating primarily in private social networks, eschewing the great common denominator: Email. But are we losing something by having all these networks? Could transitioning back to this common denominator help us learn more about ourselves and our relationships?

Hard Questions For Email’s “Lost Generation”

I vividly remember scoffing at Instagram to my friends. People were happy with Facebook for posting photos, weren’t they? I now Instagram nearly once a day, just like everyone else. But it makes me wonder how many more of these services I will feel compelled to join. Two years ago, we were all satisfied to live in our Facebook bubbles and things were simple; now we’ve layered on more and more niche social networks, each one claiming a different chunk of our personal digital artifacts. The more networks I gain, the less I actually know about my relationships in them, and the more time I spend managing each little silo and the group of friends that’s active there.


Are we losing something by having all these networks? Would consolidating them make us less aware of the niches and nuances of the various relationships we maintain on each network?

Email: The Delightfully Low-Tech Common Denominator

We think of social networking infrastructure as being progressive: First there were message boards, then email blew up, and now we have commercial “social networks” where we dump all our data. But rather than being additive, the latter networks have eclipsed earlier ones, taking much of my data with them.

They call it the “network effect” for a reason. By 2017, more than one-third of all people on this planet are expected to be active on one or more social networks. Yes, you read that right–one-third of all people. In the past year alone, 300 million more users joined a social network, and the list of networks is ever-expanding.

But why do we get cascades of new networks every few years, and what’s the cost of switching around? One answer is that people’s tastes change; another is that these private networks aren’t standardized or open source, making them harder to trust. I realized this recently while playing with a tool called Immersion, a network visualizer that its creators call a “people-centric view of your email life.” Designed by three guys out of MIT’s Media Lab, the program connects to your Gmail and displays–in beautiful little interconnected bubbles–your various networks and the prevalence of individuals in your email life. It’s astonishing how much your email knows about you, but the traditional interface isn’t meant to surface that information.

Immersion only pulls the To, From, and CC fields from your messages, plus timestamps–no actual content. Still, the nature of your closest relationships becomes immediately clear when you look at simple volume of communication: No photo tags, no check-ins, no Likes, no commenting, yet you can clearly visualize every pocket of your world. You can see information like this with LinkedIn’s visualizer, but I was surprised how–with nothing more than activity to display–the Immersion tool told me more about my communication patterns and much more about my virtual relationships. It reaches further, and connects networks and frequency of contact in an all-encompassing visualization that now seems impossible to get from any other singular social network.

I’m a child of the 1990s–I had never thought of email as a social network, having grown up almost entirely under the roof of Myspace and Facebook. But the Immersion visualizer raised a big question for me: Could email become my primary social network?


How To Teach Your Email New Social Tricks

There are a number of widgets that have been developed for Gmail that allow it to become more social. This is right in line with Google’s own relentless campaign at sociability, with Google+, Google Hangouts, GChat; I’m sure Google has made you all too aware of their push for socializing their apps.

But Gmail’s standard interface still needs a lot of work in order to behave more like the social networks we’ve come to expect. Add-ons help, including Bananatag and ToutApp, which allow you to track what happens to your emails after they’re sent, including notifying you when they are opened and how many times they are opened (yes, it creeps me out a little too).

Nutshell Mail lets you to manage all your social media activity from Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn in one interactive daily email, letting you use email as a kind of remote control. This effectively transfers all your activity to one place–your email inbox–and solves some of your too-many-networks anxiety.

CRM tools–the equivalent of “friends” lists–also abound. Extensions like Xobni, Smartr Inbox, and Smartr Contacts manage every person you’ve contacted through email, calls, or SMS, and provide a full profile of this person, complete with photo, job title, and updates from Facebook and Twitter. It’s this type of aggregation that makes these apps appealing and what would allow them to turn your inbox into your primary social network.

My point here is not that you would delete Facebook, but that you would go to Gmail for the Facebook information you wanted, allowing Gmail to be your fail-safe, bottom-layer communication tool anyway.

I’m Part Of Email’s Lost Generation

Much to Google’s chagrin, or anyone running an email service today, it may be too late to get people thinking about social email. One important mitigating factor I’ve noticed seems to be demographics: There is a lost generation of email users. At 19, email is nowhere near my go-to means of social interaction. My Immersion data clearly displays my work network and other random email circles–me, my roommates, and our landlord, or a group project at school–but lacks the network most central to my social life: my friends.


My father, a 52-year-old with 98 Facebook friends, uses email robustly. I have never found this old-fashioned, but merely recognize that he operates in a different world of communication from my largely photo-obsessed, real-time generation. We are most comfortable with what we know: He was introduced to online communication through email, I was brought in through AIM, Myspace, and Facebook. But now I’m questioning my alleged tech savvy. His Immersion screenshot was an incredibly accurate representation of all segments of his home, social, and professional lives–he could learn much more from his Immersion visualization about his closest relationships that I ever could with my list of Facebook friends. He’s an ideal candidate for this idea of email-as-social network.

For me it may be too late. But I’ll make peace with that–after all, there are entertainment aspects to social network sites that Gmail widgets will never be able to emulate. Facebook and Instagram may not be paradigms of functionality and efficiency, but email will just never feel as fun.

[Image: Flickr user Basheer Tome]

About the author

Emma is a New York City kid who is sometimes a college student in Miami. She follows politics and beautifully designed things and loves spoken word poetry, Sofia Coppola movies, and Patti Smith.