Is Email Only for 'Old People'?

by Hollee Actman Becker
Originally Published: 

Last week: I’m driving the 12-year-old to what feels like her 500th dance class of the day while simultaneously leaving a voicemail for a friend. Because I’m awesomely multi-talented like that. “Hey, it’s me. Just saw your email. Call me.” I end the call. Short and sweet.

But then, from the backseat, the 12-year-old starts cracking up. “What?” I tilt the rearview mirror so I can get a better look at the amusement on her face, only I can’t see her face because she’s got her phone in her hand and she’s looking down. At what I can only guess. A group chat with her camp friends? Somebody’s latest Dubsmash? Another One Tree Hill mashup on Vine? “Ugh, Mom!” she says, finally looking up at the mirror to meet my eyes. “Only old people use email.”

And there you have it.

I remember getting my first email account like it was yesterday. It was 1994 and I had just graduated from journalism school and landed my first real job as an editor at a sports magazine. Email was this cool, new thing, and we spent every free second composing and responding to messages from fellow colleagues and the few random friends outside our company who were also lucky enough to have office email addresses. We used it to exchange banter, recap the previous night’s episode of Melrose Place, make plans for after-work drinks. Email was everything. And if your company didn’t have it yet, your life pretty much sucked.

Now it’s email that sucks. Twenty-one years of opting into newsletters and promotions has left me with an inbox filled with upwards of 10,000 unread messages—news I don’t care about, updates I no longer relate to, reminders for events I never plan to attend. The notion of wading through all that crap in hopes of uncovering the one can’t-miss message is an annoying time suck to say the least—and one that I have to force myself to engage in at least once a day. Click open inbox, scroll monotonously, sigh loudly, click close.

Apparently I’m not the only one. A recent article by John Brandon in Inc. predicts the demise of email by the year 2020. “There are already signs that business is starting to move away from email as a primary form of digital communication,” he writes. “We have so many alternatives. You can send a text message or a DM on Twitter. You can drop someone a note on Facebook or start a chat.”

Meanwhile, he continues, email has become a black hole. “People don’t respond—or they take forever to respond (which is sort of the same thing). A discussion starts nesting into multiple threads with multiple people and no one can make any sense of it anymore. Spam filters become overly aggressive. We spend hours per week trying to get rid of unimportant messages. By 2020, someone will have figured out how to make digital communication much more efficient.”

Will that “someone” be our children? At 12 and 9, mine have already figured out that if they want to get in touch with someone, the best and most immediate way to do so is via text or Facebook message or Snapchat or ooVoo or some other social network. This is starting to be true in the workplace as well, with many companies making the move towards more efficient internal communication systems like Campfire and Slack (which we use here at The Mid). Is this the wave of the future? Are we only holding onto email because we’ve been there from the beginning? Because we adapted once, and now that we’re “old,” we don’t want to adapt anymore?

When both my kids were born, I rushed to score them gmail addresses made up of their first and middle names. I got them both without having to tack any random numbers or underscores onto the end. How proactive, I thought at the time, how clever!

Now I just wonder if they’ll ever even get to use them.

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