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Email Isn't Dying, But it Could Be Healthier

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie

I keep saying that I’m done writing about the silly but persistent idea that email is dying.  In a rational world, the simple fact that email use continues to grow rapidly — though perhaps not as rapidly as a few years ago — would be enough to debunk this once and for all.  But as the rhetoric in recent elections reminds us, we do not live in a rational world, and I can’t resist connecting the dots between some recent email-related irrationalities.

The latest sign of life in this supposedly dying technology is the announcement that Twitter — one of the social media technologies most often claimed to be helping cause the death of email – has added a new feature:  the ability to easily resend tweets by email.  Now, the folks at Twitter aren’t being inconsistent at all here, because they’ve never, to my knowledge, been among the folks pushing the “death of email” meme.  But it may be time for people to stop using Twitter as an explanation for email’s anticipated demise.

This comes on the heels of a similar development at Facebook, though in that case Facebook was itself culpable for the silliness.  In 2011, several Facebook executives, including Mark Zuckerberg, publicly predicted the death of email, only a few months before Facebook rolled out its own email service.  In retrospect, it was rather like a pregnant woman predicting the end of babies — it’s hard to guess what they were thinking when they said it.

Then there is the famed case of Atos, a company whose CEO declared email a productivity killer, and proclaimed a goal of making the company email-free within a year.  A year later, they were proudly proclaiming success because they’d cut email volume by 20% — almost certainly a good thing, but not quite what was promised.  It’s as if an irate leftist dedicated himself to removing Chris Christie from office, and later touted his success at helping the Governor lose weight.

Why does this sort of thing keep happening?  I think it all comes down to two key factors:

– We are extremely, irrevocably dependent on email technology, broadly defined.

– And we hate many things about it.

Email has woven its way into our lives to the point where many of us spend more than half our work day reading and sending email.  That can feel like a time waster to those of us who remember when work was more than email, but in fact the reason we spend so much time in email is that we’re getting so much of our work done there.  If it’s the most efficient place to get our work done, spending more time at it is a good thing, not a bad one.

But still, we hate email, in part because it’s easy to get sucked into non-productive work, and in part because email is so complicated — as I’ve said here many times before — that it’s full of traps and pitfalls for the unwary.

And, it turns out, for the wary as well.  After 100,000 years using email — 32 in decimal – I still occasionally “reply to all” when I should reply to sender, and make other rookie mistakes.  But I’m in good company:  a silly email mistake is a major reason for David Petraeus’ recent resignation as director of the CIA.  And from the other side of the fence comes the news that using “CC” instead of “BCC” has effectively made the Taliban’s entire mailing list public!

I would presume that in this day and age, anyone who gets to be a top general and CIA director (or a leading international terrorist!) must be fairly sophisticated about security and privacy in electronic technology.   And General Petraeus was surely aware of how Colonel Oliver North revealed the whole covert Iran-contra scheme through his lack of sophistication about email backups.  Yet somehow Petraeus convinced himself that, by sharing an account with his mistress and leaving each other messages as “drafts” rather than hitting the send button — a technique that USA Today gleefully referred to as a “common email trick” – he could avoid being. found out.  Did General Petraeus think that the techniques his own agency used to investigate terrorists couldn’t be used against him and his mistress?   More likely he didn’t stop to think about it at all — at least, not with the right organ.

Now, if anyone alive today has the right to hate email, and to hope fervently for its death, General Petraeus and Colonel North have to be near the top of the list.  But I strongly suspect that neither of them has missed a beat, and will continue to use email heavily for the rest of their lives.  There’s simply no better alternative.

So is there any hope at all, or are we simply doomed to suffer the miseries of email’s negative side?  Perhaps surprisingly, I’m rather optimistic.  The things people hate about email are, for the most part, easily approached as separate problems, which means that we can make progress on them one at a time.   That’s one of the basic premises behind a company like Mimecast:  we provide a range of services that are designed to decrease the hassle and the risk in using this powerful and essential medium called email.  We may never fix all of the problems, but we (and our customers) look forward to steady incremental improvements, year after year.  Email isn’t dying, but it could certainly use our help in losing the undesirable extra weight it has put on over the years.