Why e-mail has become the new snail mail

Compared with text messages and instant messaging, e-mail is an incredibly slow and inefficient method of communication

I was struck, the other day, by an uncharacteristic desire to socialise and decided to invite a few friends over for dinner. But three days after sending out an e-mail invitation, only half the prospective guests have replied. And while there might be a number of banal explanations for this — the poor souls in question may be away, they may not like me as much as I like them, they may have heard about that unfortunate dinner party in 2002 when I drank so much that I threw up between courses and was in bed before pudding could be served — I think there’s a profound explanation for the silence. E-mail is no longer a useful method of communication.

And one of the many surprising things about this development is that it has absolutely nothing to do with spam, the thing that, some years ago, many people thought would result in the death of e-mail.

Unsolicited messages are still, of course, an issue — according to one estimate, three quarters of all e-mails are spam — but filters do a brilliant job, achieving a success rate of 99.5 to 99.9 per cent — and of the thousands of e-mails I get each month, no more than two or three are ever offering “80 per cent off Codeine, Hydrocodone, Vicodin, Xanex or Valium” or “increased performance guaranteed” or “pills for a larger Pen1s!”.

The other surprising thing about the decreasing usefulness of e-mail is that it is actually being crippled, in part, by solicited messages. It has, in short, become a victim of its own success.

In surveys of business users, the biggest complaint about e-mail is that there is too much of it, with people too often using electronic messages as a way of demonstrating that they are working, and endless, enervating chains of messages with people offering mindless opinions on inconsequential corporate developments clogging inboxes across the country. But personal e-mail is becoming just as cumbersome.

The other day I was complaining to a friend and colleague about the ever-increasing volume of e-mails, saying that I replied to very urgent ones as I got them, made a mental note to reply to moderately urgent messages by the end of the day (but often forgot to do so) but in general managed to respond to messages only once a week or once a fortnight, during marathon, guilt-fuelled e-mailing sessions.

And he responded with the news that he’d given up on e-mail entirely. If you want a response from him, you have to get him by telephone, or text message, which brings us to yet another surprising thing about e-mail in 2009: it has become the new snail mail.

This may sound peculiar to people who are still mourning the demise of the letter, and the opportunities it provided for considered reflection, contemplation, fancy handwriting and the use of silver fountain pens and exclusively milled, watermarked, personalised writing paper from Smythson of Bond Street, but e-mail, compared with text messages, and instant messaging, is an incredibly slow and inefficient method of communication.

How inefficient and slow? Well consider these facts from a recent study: as few as one in five of e-mail messages are ever opened; whereas more than 95 percent of text messages are opened; the average time for a recipient to view an e-mail message is 6.4 hours; whereas the average time for the recipient to view a text message is 14 minutes.

And then, on top of this, there’s the effect of social networking. And it seems to me that there are three main ways in which sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Myspace are killing e-mail, the first being that they reduce the need for sending out many e-mails in the first place.

If you know from Facebook, or Twitter, or for that matter from someone’s status on gmail or Skype, that they are on holiday in Africa or on a book deadline or have relatives staying over, there’s no need to an e-mail a dinner invitation.

Second, sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Myspace allow you to message lots of people at the same time much more efficiently than e-mail, reducing the need for targeted, specific, involved e-mails.

Planning things by Facebook is particularly easy: set up an event, invite everyone you want to by clicking on their names, and then they can respond by clicking on “attending”, “maybe attending” or “not attending”. No need for tiresome explanations.

Third, social networking sites encourage brevity of communication, and are much easier to use on the move than e-mail and are therefore more suited to the way we use the internet now: instead of logging in and out, checking messages periodically, we’re always connected via computers or mobile phones.

In addition, Twitter gets rid of the need for tiresome e-mail etiquette — there’s no need to worry about terms of address or signoffs and so on, because there’s no space — and makes e-mail feel as antiquated as sending out messages by carrier pigeon.

It is true, of course, that e-mail is still growing: according to a recent study, in the month of August this year, the number of e-mail users increased by 21 per cent. But social networking is growing faster: over the same period, the number of social network users grew by 31 per cent.

And if you think it is outlandish to suggest that e-mail use is peaking, ask yourself this question: when was the last time a teenager sent you an e-mail? You may have sent them one, but I bet you have to text or instant message them to instruct them to read it and to respond.

I was not at all surprised to read a report from Professor David Zeitly of the University of Kent at Canterbury, the social anthropologist, on the UK’s internet habits which found that e-mail is much more popular among older than younger segments of the UK population: apparently 86 per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds use e-mail compared with 98 per cent of people aged 65 or over. Meanwhile, only 51 per cent of Britons in their teens or early twenties say e-mail is their first choice of communication.

Of course, these figures show that e-mail is a long way from dying out. But it is beginning to fade, and I suspect it will slowly go the way of the letter, becoming less and less popular and eventually ending up as the preferred method of communication for business users, the elderly, the helplessly middle-aged, the hopelessly nostalgic, estate agents, solicitors and credit card companies



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