Fifteen years ago, electronic mail was fresh and shiny, efficient and economical. Today, it's a stone ax next to communication methods that let us tag, filter, and engage in real-time exchanges, group conversations, and multimedia. In a society that increasingly depends on consensus for decision-making, these new tools play an important role in keeping the tribes intact.Yet e-mail will still have its place in this world for years to come.
Why? Because different relationships call for different means of communication.
- Lovers, parents, and children want to connect as intimately and immediately as possible -- real-time, multisensual, and with perfect fidelity -- which is why the military sets up video calls for overseas troops.
- Young people prowling for life partners want to maintain their networks via frequent (incessant?) touches with a large group. Users like this IM "sup?" a hundred times a day and Tweet every aggravation, no matter how petty.
- Businesses want to coordinate their work yet control the flow of information. Their messages are more formal and hierarchical. When two executives don't rank equally, real-time conversations demanding input and decision-making aren't always desirable. If the guy in the mail room has the courage to send a suggestion to the CEO, he's not going to use IM. He's going to use e-mail.
- And e-mail excels in its function as an anti-boor shield. Who wants more real-time conversations with self-indulgent time-wasters? Who wants bill collectors, direct marketers, or religious proselytizers setting up camp in their electronic living rooms? Hurray for auto-reply, filters, and the delete button.
The next time you're trapped in an unending IM session, ask yourself whether e-mail might have worked better. Disengaging from e-mail means never having to end the conversation rudely. Just because we can have real-time conversations involving multiple users with video links and embedded video doesn't mean we'll always use every bell and whistle. When we only need to press a thumbtack into a wall, the heel of our shoes work better than a hammer.
I hope that we're evolving toward a world in which we have a perfect answer for each communication problem. And while I embrace our new technologies, I don't think that any method can ever be one-size-fits-all. E-mail, by some name, will still find a place in our future communications -- even if it's the same place where we put our postcards or our billets doux.