Is E-Mail Dead? A Millennial Weighs In

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I was recently approached by Scottsdale Airpark News Magazine to write a piece on social media. I chose to weigh in on the life (and death) of e-mail, the generational gap in usage behavior and explain the conundrum baffling many business experts: why don’t young business professionals rely on e-mail as their primary source for communication?  This post is a follow up to another piece I wrote entitled; Social Networks, E-mail and User Behavior in August of 2008.

From Scottsdale Airpark News:

Is E-Mail Dead? A Millennial’s view on today’s trusty tool

Stop! Before you click the send button and fire off that next e-mail, ask yourself, “Who is my audience and what is their age demographic?” As we prepare to enter a new decade, it’s time to think about how the use of e-mail has changed since 1995. Those who are 26 years and younger—“Millenials”—have a very different attitude about it than Generation X or even Y.

In the mid to late ’90s, e-mail was the leading edge. It offered unparalleled utility, was time effective and cost sensitive. It quickly became a requirement in most places of business and a part of our daily routine. Yet, despite its apparent necessity, the next few years will see e-mail moved to the endangered species list.

Change of Address

Non-Millennials embraced the Internet during a period when Internet Service Providers (ISP) and work-associated e-mails were king. If you’re over 26, you’ve probably had one e-mail address associated with your home ISP and a second professional e-mail for work. Most non-Millennials change their e-mail only when they move or change employers, so they have had maybe two addresses in the last 10 to 15 years.

Millennials, on the other hand, have been forced to adapt. During the peak of the tech boom, America’s youth were flooding online. Hungry for privacy and their own piece of online real estate, they signed up for free e-mail providers like Hotmail, Yahoo and eventually Google. They had free time, a burning curiosity, and a native understanding of the web which drove them to explore … sometimes recklessly.

What many discovered was an inbox inundated with spam. While older generations used e-mail for conversations, Millennials had instant messaging. The end result was a transient relationship with e-mail. Too much spam? Just register a new address. Interests changed? Register a new address. Pokemanmaster87@hotmail.com too childish? Time for another. An environment quickly evolved where keeping your address book up to date was impossible.

Enter Social Media

Many people were shocked by how sites like Facebook became so successful among young people. The answer is simple. Social media sites provided a “one-stop shop” for most of the resources Millennials desperately needed. They wanted a simple service that essentially replaced e-mail with a database-driven address book that users automatically updated—and one that provided real-time chat, e-mail-like functionality and the ability to share rich media.

Facebook and co. rocked the boat but didn’t end e-mail’s dominance. After all, e-mail still offers value not readily duplicated by social networks. It remains our go-to resource for sharing documents and files, the preferred medium for professional communication (especially due to its archival value) and a necessity for trans-generational communication.

It’s time to prepare for a new decade, one that’s no longer shackled to e-mail. File sizes are skyrocketing and have quickly swamped e-mail’s capability. This has spawned spinoff resources, such as Drop.io, which allow quick and easy file sharing. Social media is no longer the sole domain of Millennials and the occasional early adopter. It’s reached a critical mass where Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are commonplace. They’ve become the new status quo, paving the way for the mass adoption of Google Wave and similar products delivering a more engaging, real-time, collaborative and user-friendly experience. It all points to a future that is sure to retire e-mail to the domain of rotary telephones, typewriters and fax machines.

So, before you hit send, ask yourself, is e-mail really the right medium for your message?

Alex Berger, a Millenial, is the author of the blog VirtualWayfarer.com, as well as an analyst with Fox & Fin Financial Group, 7333 E. Doubletree Ranch Road, Suite 200, Scottsdale. Alex@foxfin.com; www.foxfin.com; @MandAAZ.

View a .pdf of the print version here.

Have thoughts, comments, or your own insight to add?  Please join the discussion with a comment below!

Social Networks, E-mail and User Behavior

Listen to this post:

Audio: Social Networks and Email

Facebook and MySpace have received their fair share of attention.  Thousands of articles have been written looking at the younger generation’s quick adoption of these sites and their prolific success.  Some of these articles have even taken a look at how older generations have begun adopting social networks, while others have looked at why older generations refuse to invest their time and resources into social networks.  Up until recently a large portion of the coverage portrayed social networks as little more than playground gathering places for youths to chitter chatter with each other … Useful from a social sense but irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. With the success and widespread adoption of LinkedIn and record numbers of adults joining social networks that dialogue has begun to change, but it still has largely failed to realize why and how millennials use social networks instead of conventional e-mail and similar resources.

Earlier this year Beth Kanter explored the topic briefly with several significant statistics and insights.  View her post here. To illustrate several of the points I’ll be making later in this post I’ve borrowed the following graph from her post:

Credit: Beth Kanter & Morgan Stanley
Credit: Beth Kanter & Morgan Stanley

This shouldn’t surprise you.  Millennials use Facebook more than older generations, and similarly neglect conventional e-mail which has a significantly stronger usage base among older generations. While this graph breaks the age groups into 15-24 and 44+, I believe individuals currently aged 27-28 is where you will see a very important shift in behavior.   The status quo explanation for this has attributed it to a youth- based fad which I believe is inaccurate.

As a 23-year old heavy Facebook user and early adopter I’ve been able to observe my fellow millennials while comparing those observations to my professional interactions which have predominantly involved individuals in the 26-70 age bracket.

Why Millennials Prefer Social Networks

Non-Millennials embraced the internet during a period where ISP and work associated e-mails were king.  You had one e-mail address, probably associated with your home internet service provider and/or a professional e-mail used for work purposes. Most non-millennials have had the same e-mail address for years and usually only change e-mail addresses when forced to by a move, or employer change. As a result most individuals in this age bracket have had only had one or two e-mail addresses in the last 10-15 years.

Millennials on the other hand grew up wanting and needing privacy, but without the access to ISP/work-based e-mails that their parents had. As a result we turned to free e-mail account providers – companies like Yahoo, MSN and lately Google. En mass we flooded onto these sites and in youthful form registered e-mail addresses that reflected our perception of cool … SurfDude42, Sunbabe555 and thousands of other e-mail addresses were registered.  For example, my first e-mail address was the_ageless_dark_phoenix@yahoo.com – how’s that for a long/odd one? For many of us we registered our first e-mail towards the end of middle school/in the first years of high school. Similarly many of us flooded onto AIM, ICQ and eventually MSN messenger. The combination of these tools meant that we spent most of our time talking to friends on the phone or IM and relied on e-mail for organizing events, communicating with older generations, and exchanging files.

What is particularly significant is that unlike our parents who were still adjusting to e-mail and using it for professional and more measured correspondences, we were talking about school, stuff that interested us, and signing up for every cool web survey and service we could find. This meant that most of us ended up with heavily inundated, under utilized e-mail addresses. However, that was only the beginning.

  • By high school some of us were forced to register a new school e-mail address.
  • For some the spam we’d accumulated from signing up for web surveys and the like caused us to abandon one e-mail in favor of a freshly registered restart.
  • As the offerings evolved many of us also re-located from one provider to another – eg: from MSN to Google.
  • By College we had our college e-mail and were forced to switch over or balance several accounts simultaneously.
  • As we began to search for internships and look for professional opportunities many of us then were forced to register new more professional e-mail addresses.  Things like Alex.Berger@gmail.com to replace the older playful names.
  • By graduation most of us then had to adopt new work e-mail addresses with our employers.  Meanwhile our University e-mails eventually expired.

The end result is that you’ll be hard pressed to find a Millennial who has had fewer than 4 separate e-mail addresses.  Further, because of the fluid nature of our relationships and people constantly updating e-mail addresses most of us have underutilized, out of date, or empty address books. Contact management based on e-mail that non-millennials live off of is virtually non-existent among the millennial population.

Why Social Networks?

Social networks provide an aggregation of the services we were already using.  It has profiles, the ability to instant message, the ability to publicly message and group communicate, and e-mail-like messaging.  All of which is essentially spam free (especially on Facebook and LinkedIn).  Further, it’s name/profile based, not e-mail based so as your school changes, job changes, e-mail changes, etc. you maintain the same profile.  All the while it facilitates large scale social connections and collaboration in a way that group e-mail lists can’t come close to.

Usage Behavior

What you’ll find is that Millennials almost exclusively use e-mail to communication with/for 1) Non-Millennials 2) Professional Exchanges and 3) To transfer files or store information.

If you look at females (as they are more prone to regular social conversation) in the 26-35 age group, I believe (from personal observation) that you will find that a large percentage e-mail back and forth in a conversational manner very similar to the exchanges that regularly take place on social networks.  The difference being they are outside the millennial window and as a result still rely on the more conventional e-mail-based exchange.

As technology continues to evolve, so too will our reliance on virtual mediums to facilitate communication.  I had a wonderful reminder and illustration of this yesterday during a conversation with my roommate – a 1st grade teacher.  She shared a story with me about one of her co-worker’s 8-month old daughter who, despite not being able to speak or walk yet, actively uses a basic video game. When she strikes a key the game plays a brief video. She shows signs of recognition when the laptop is brought out and is always eager to play the game.  That is the type of digital native which will re-shape the way we view technology 18 years from now.

As always, I value your insights, feedback and stories!   Please post them in a comment below.