The Changing World of Communications

December 25, 2010
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This week in the New York Times an article and a follow on post on the NYT Bits Blog talked about online email use and a report from ComScore that shows a sharp decline in email use among several age groups. Email, which has steadily increased since the early 1980’s, is in decline across all but the oldest segments of the population.

This week in the New York Times an article and a follow on post on the NYT Bits Blog talked about online email use and a report from ComScore that shows a sharp decline in email use among several age groups. Email, which has steadily increased since the early 1980’s, is in decline across all but the oldest segments of the population. Now if you know me, you know that I hate email, so this news was well received, but as I looked at the numbers and thought about what it might mean some interesting possibilities jumped out at me.

Email was conceived in the early 1970’s and hit it’s current form in the transition from ARPANET to Internet in the early 1980’s. Not that there haven’t been some improvements to the original standards, there have, but in basic form and function the system is “mature.” Email was conceived to mimic offline mail or snail mail, so basically is an electronic letter and has a certain formality, the most formal of current online communication modes. Okay, enough email history.

I found the ComScore data interesting, especially in context to all of the changing tech trends that we are following today. Here’s the summary chart:

The first thing to note is that the survey is web-based email on desktop computers so some of the decline is most likely related to the shift to mobile computing. Our own (IDC) research shows that email on mobile devices is growing rapidly and that growth will continue for the next few years (~13% CAGR through 2014) as the smartphone and tablet explosion extends throughout the enterprise.

Growth in the over 55 groups is easy to explain, as more older adults go online for the first time email is an easy transition from more traditional communication methods. The fact that it is more formal, asynchronous (allows more time to collect thoughts and less opportunity for embarrassment) and easy to use makes it particularly attractive for the newly computer literate. It’s a little ironic that email growth in this segment is somewhat similar to the growth of facebook in the same group. Both tools are good for connecting / reconnecting with family and friends, and sharing things like photos and other information.

Likewise the drastic reduction in email use for the under 17 segment, or digital natives, is not surprising. For this segment email is seen as old fashioned and does not fit in with a real time, always connected world. My 15 year old daughter communicates by SMS and facebook messaging and IM but rarely checks her email. Email’s formality and asynchronous nature simply doesn’t fit their lifestyle.

Email is still an important business communication tool and currently none of the potential replacement technologies can replace it. Even so you can see that use is declining among the core business user ages. Now as I said some of that is simply a shift to mobile over other device types. I wonder though, if the decline might also be related to the growth of social tools.  In a recent IDC survey the top five reasons for conducting social initiatives are all related to communication:

  • Acquire knowledge / ask questions
  • Share knowledge / contribute ideas
  • Communicate with customers
  • Create awareness about company product or service
  • Communicate with internal colleagues

The ComScore numbers would seem to support the idea that new social collaboration tools are replacing email use for peer to peer and group collaboration. This is good news as we deploy tools that are people centric and purpose built for enabling collaborative activities. This leave email use for communication, you know, what it was actually designed for. Take a look at some more of the data from our Social Business survey: