The death of e-mail.

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Nov. 14 2007 12:32 PM

The Death of E-Mail

Teenagers are abandoning their Yahoo! and Hotmail accounts. Do the rest of us have to?

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Is any of this surprising? It's just teenagers doing what teenagers do: gabbing, hanging out, goofing around. More so than e-mail, all of these methods of instant communication mimic the interactions that kids would otherwise have in basements and dorm rooms. E-mail, by comparison, can feel stilted and plodding. Writing is methodical and time-consuming, a closer relative to  letter writing than to conversation. Even the delivery speed of e-mail—sure, it takes only a few seconds—is now considered frightfully slow.

My niece and other teenagers I talked to—I mean, Facebooked and IMed with—told me that, on average, their cell phones log 50 messages each day. They all confessed to sending a text message while IMing with someone else, and they all said they are signed in to IM or Facebook from the time they get home from classes until they turn out the lights. When everyone's online, kids never have to leave the company of their pals. If you're not constantly plugged in, they say, you start to feel left out.

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The sense of loss I feel about the decline of e-mail has less to do with how we communicate than with what we communicate. The means by which we deliver a message affects its content. While the rise of the BlackBerry has proven that e-mail can be adapted for fast-burst communiqués, the medium is best-suited for longer musings. As opposed to instant messaging, e-mail provides the breathing room to contemplate what we're writing and express nuanced thoughts. A well-tended e-mail inbox and outbox can serve as a sort of diary, an evolving record of your curiosities, obsessions, introspections, apologies, and heart-to-hearts. Instant messages, on the other hand, are like Post-it notes, handy for a few minutes but hardly worth saving. While IMs and text messages have a throwaway quality, e-mail is for the sentimental. I still have some of the first flirtatious e-mails I exchanged with my wife in college. I have thoughtful monologues from friends in the midst of crises. I have e-mails from my parents that I envision showing to my children someday. Aw.

Thinking more practically, there's now a generation gap between first-generation and second-generation Internet users. Colleges are finding that students increasingly ignore or never receive campus-wide e-mail announcements. All those clever forwards from Grandpa are going unread. And no matter what dominates in the dorm room, e-mail still rules in the workplace. Office-bound graduates will be forced to make Microsoft Outlook—not AIM or Facebook—their first sign-on of the day. Some may find it a vexing challenge to remediate their sloppy IM habits into professional-sounding e-mail prose.

So, is the solution to browbeat these little rebels back in line and enforce mandatory e-mail usage? Good luck. Chances are, as usual, that the grown-ups will be the ones who are forced to adapt. Colleges have already  thrown up their hands and created Facebook and MySpace pages to stay in touch with students. Since Facebook opened its gates to oldsters this year, parents are coming in and setting up camp a safe viewing distance from their kids. I, too, have become a Facebook believer, and most of my friends are joining the church. There's no better way to follow the goings-on—both major and trivial—of your group of friends than skimming the Facebook news feed.

It may seem unfortunate that right when senior citizens became comfortable with e-mail, a host of new technologies are making their habits archaic. But transitioning beyond e-mail doesn't have to be as painful as transitioning to it. While its popularity may wane, it's hard to see e-mail vanishing completely—we'll always need some way to send each other long-form messages. Besides, we're already seeing technology that makes it simpler for everyone to communicate across all of these various channels. Gmail elegantly melds IM and e-mail, making it easy to chat with your contacts and file away instant-message conversations alongside your mail. You can now send and receive every kind of message—texts, IMs, e-mails, and Facebook posts—with most new mobile phones. It's not hard to imagine a future communications command center where, on a single screen, you'll be able to choose between sending an e-mail, instant message, status note, or blog post—or sending all of them at once—and then have all those bits of text neatly and securely archived. Once that happens, nostalgic e-mailers like me won't have to feel like dinosaurs.