November 16, 2009

Streams May Impact E-mail, But Won't Kill It Any Time Soon

As trendy as it can be at times to say that the new social "activity streams" are set to be the future of our communications, including most social networks and the nascent Google Wave, it is clear that e-mail has some serious life ahead of it. While many can complain about the growth of e-mail messages, the replacement of actual messages from people with simple notifications by robots, and a march toward "In Box Zero", this form of transmission is not going to be deleted for the foreseeable future, even if it morphs to adopt more social functionality. In an intriguing discussion at last week's Defrag conference, it was suggested e-mail could tap into the social networks, and that the most adept e-mail users would have advantages over those less savvy, but nobody called for its death. In an attention-grabbing blogosphere, that's a rare thing indeed.

Tim Young of Socialcast, reflecting on the move to activity streams in many of those networks we inhabit, echoed a belief of mine, saying that as information consumers, access to more data is key to our continued growth and adaptation to a changing world. He even took a second step to say that our ability to adapt quickly will promote the best discovery artists to the head of the pack.

"Information foraging is core to our human psychology," Young said. "It is the energy source for our minds. We hunt and gather for information to understand and adapt to our world. Natural selection favors organisms with the best food foraging strategies. In the future, natural selection will favor people and enterprises with the best information foraging strategies."

For the last two decades, one of the most frequent methods for finding information and distributing outward has been e-mail. E-mail, like blogging, is well known for offering the function of rich communications and longer-length missives, not restricted by the limits often found through mobile phone usage, Twitter and other sites. Unsurprisingly, a good number of e-mails are made to be sent to multiple recipients as well.

Alexander Moore of Baydin reported in a study of more than 250,000 e-mail messages (via Enron) and nearly half a million tweets, that 42 percent of e-mails are multi-recipient, contrasted with only 6 percent of tweets being for multiple recipients, but he did say our immersion in the social Web had shown signs of affecting the way we send messages.

"We are conditioned from using Web 2.0 services," he said. "E-mail is moving toward shorter messages due to the rise of mobile phones. E-mail is going to be around for a while, but there are things we can learn form Twitter, Facebook and social media."

The conference's panelists largely agreed that e-mail needed improvements, much like an evolution instead of a revolution. Michael Cerda of cc:Betty said "E-mail is on its last leg, but that leg is going to be for a long time," adding he preferred an e-mail box full of grouped conversations instead of individual messages. In parallel, Matt Brezina of Xobni, said he thought e-mail could be made more social through exposing relationships that live in e-mail, possibly even sharing attachments and e-mails with an extended social graph.

Brezina said that Xobni was formed as a plug-in to Outlook instead of an Outlook replacement as "people hate changing their workflows," saying his product "generates more e-mail happiness" and increased worker productivity. Similarly, Cerda asked to "waken up the data and bring it to life". One way to do this, as Moore recommended, was to make feedback on e-mail more public. Why not add a "like" button to e-mail as there is in Facebook, to give the sender credit, when most feedback on e-mail today is private?

The day's panelists looked to a future that keeps e-mail around, but starts to see the integration of more social activity, borrowing from the world of social. The medium is not limited in the same way that many social networks are, but its sheer age and its occasional overwhelming nature has people asking what's next. One of the major reasons it hasn't gone away? As Moore said, it is "rich in content, rich in conversation and rich in control". Nearly 9 of every 10 e-mails is 140 characters or more.

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