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.