By 2002, everyone in my family had become an Internet convert. For the technophobic older generation, signing up for an e-mail account was a concession to us youngsters—if the kids don't call home, they thought, we'll just reach them through the computer. Everyone was especially eager to send messages to my niece, a kid who wasn't all that chatty on the phone but was almost always glued to her PC. But while the rest of us happily exchanged forwards and life updates, she almost never piped up. Eventually, I sussed out the truth: She was too busy sending IMs and text messages to bother with e-mail. That's when I realized that my agility with e-mail no longer marked me as a tech-savvy young adult. It made me a lame old fogey.
Those of us older than 25 can't imagine a life without e-mail. For the Facebook generation, it's hard to imagine a life of only e-mail, much less a life before it. I can still remember the proud moment in 1996 when I sent my first e-mail from the college computer lab. It felt like sending a postcard from the future. I was getting a glimpse of how the Internet would change everything—nothing could befaster and easier than e-mail.
Ten years later, e-mail is looking obsolete. According to a 2005 Pew study, almost half of Web-using teenagers prefer to chat with friends via instant messaging rather than e-mail. Last year, comScore reported that teen e-mail use was down 8 percent, compared with a 6 percent increase in e-mailing for users of all ages. As mobile phones and sites like Twitter and Facebook have become more popular, those old Yahoo! and Hotmail accounts increasingly lie dormant.
How have we reached this point? Not so long ago, e-mail networks formed the basic latticework of the Internet. In just a few years, electronic mail dramatically altered the way we communicate with friends, relatives, and colleagues. Sitting down and composing messages became a daily ritual, the primary way that hundreds of millions of people kept in touch.
You could chalk up the decline of e-mail to kids following the newest tech fads. You're not cool if you're not on Facebook or MySpace, and everyone wants the latest tricked-out cell phone. I've come around to the idea, though, that all of this other stuff is catching on because e-mail isn't perfect. Instant-messaging, mobile text-messaging, blogging, micro-blogging, and social-networking profiles all help compensate for e-mail's shortcomings.
Let's think about this from a teenager's perspective. First, you'd never send an e-mail to 200 friends saying, "It's Friday and I'm ready to party!!!" But with a Twitter tweet or a Facebook status update, you can broadcast such a message to all of your buddies without seeming like a total dweeb. Need to make your party plans for Friday night? You'd be a fool to send an e-mail and twiddle your thumbs waiting for responses; it's speedier to exchange IMs with your friends. If you then need to tell those friends how awesome they are for joining you, post a message on their Facebook or MySpace page so the world can see. And mobile phones take instant—and constant—contact into a whole other realm. You can argue with your girlfriend all night without having to leave the party. Then, the next morning, you can change your Facebook relationship status to "single." And there you have it—a whole weekend of social drama lived and publicized without a single e-mail.
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.
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.