Email Formality, Informality, and Email’s future

Yesterday, I heard a NY Times tech columnist Matt Richtel on Bay Area radio station KFOG discussing the decline of email, which he ascribed to email’s “formality”. He was referring back, of course, to Mark Zuckerberg’s comments on Facebook’s messaging system launch. You know a meme has gone mainstream when a columnist from the world’s stodgiest newspaper (sorry, guys) is interviewed about it on your local 40-something’s rock station.

Richtel (and Zuckerberg) put this down to email’s format. “There’s a subject field, a formal greeting, a closing [like “sincerely, Duncan”]. Teens are using SMS and IM because it’s much simpler,” per TechCrunch.

And of course other messaging systems want to interface into email because of its ubiquity – you can reach almost anyone via email.

There is something in the “decline of email,” certainly in consumer – Yahoo are seeing a significant fall in usage, for instance.

Yet, doesn’t the “Sincerely” explanation mostly feel like bunk? Millions of people have used short-form emails on their BlackBerry over the last decade. This is not primarily a format question.

Here are some key factors that really give email a more “formal” feel:

  • You are taking an active decision to send a message to particular person or group of people; you are investing more in emailing someone vs. putting a post on a wall where it may or may not be read by your followers or friends
  • The message is expected to be kept forever, and may be referred back to, unlike, typically, SMS/IM. Email is a medium of record (stodgy – ask the NYT!), for better and worse
  • The message can be arbitrarily long, like an essay
  • The expectation is that it will be (and should be!) read – unlike a tweets or posts, which might or might not be seen
  • As Zuckerberg rightly said, it does have more fields than just adding to an IM-conversation or posting requires
  • Email replies can be much more considered than IM, or than typical Facebook-post comments
  • Your gran does email

I would note that a lot of this is really a reflection of email’s flexibility – it can be short or long, high or low priority for reading, simple or complex content, for the young or the old, directed or widely broadcast, short-term or long-term in its implications. Indeed, part of email’s problem may be its flexibility – what really does the sender mean by sending you an email?

Remember all those “Sent from my BlackBerry” signatures? They were trying to direct the recipient to think of the email as a short-form informal message – well, when they weren’t drawing attention to the sender’s gadget prowess. An SMS doesn’t need a footer to tell you it is informally composed and sent; in a world of app minimalism, “flexible” is not always a good thing.

Is there space for a startup that does more to combine the ubiquity of email with instantaneous informal easeful feeling of IM, SMS, micro-blogging, and social spaces? Would you call it an “Instant Email” service?

I think the IM and SMS “feel” would be fairly easy to create in an ultra-simple client – one with a strong mobile + web orientation. Would this matter, though? Perhaps it would, if the user could provide a way for friends to adopt the client.

Posting is much harder. How could you remove the “I am deliberating choosing to send you this email, so you’d better read it” feeling from email, without recreating FaceBook (which would be truly pointless). Facebook already does a decent job of basic email-wall integration, for those that want it.

Then there’s the question of how video/4G impacts the future of email… Video, like email, is a attention-demanding medium (vs. a FaceBook wall). Should a re-imaging of email embrace some aspects of video?

There might be something here, but it needs more work to qualify as a startup idea.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Email Formality, Informality, and Email’s future

  1. mcale

    I remember when I was working at Stanford University a couple of years ago, having a conversation with some students about how annoying email overload is; and they explained that it wasn’t really an issue for them because, like, email is so, like, formal. Y’know, you only use email for, like, applying for a job or sending a thank you note to your aunt. It was at this moment that I knew letters were dead.

    I’m not a great IM user myself, but for me email is the prefered mode of communication precisely because of the features you mention above. It allows you to communicate your thought at any length. You can connect privately with one person or others as you choose. And it allows you to be thoughtful and considered in a way that, say, telephone calls may not.

    One of the things I find most interesting is how much more of a written culture we have become over the past few years, with the decline of the phone and the rise of all these different forms of typed communications.

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