Shrinking the E-Mail

The decline in Internet e-mail has become an undeniable trend, as measures show a steady decline over an extended period of time. And now, e-mail messages are getting shorter and simpler.

It is hard to use statistics to track the way people are using e-mail. Statistics on the aggregate number of messages are nearly useless because more than 99 percent of e-mail messages are spam messages sent by zombie bots and intercepted by filters with no human sender or receiver. Even among the Internet e-mail messages that people receive, most of the messages are these spam messages. The trends in spam are large enough to overwhelm measurements of the way people use e-mail.

However, it is also possible to track the time that people spend on e-mail web sites. This provides far more steady metrics, which show a steady decline in e-mail use that continued through this year.

Internet e-mail is declining partly because people are conceding the medium to spammers. Even with the arrest of one of the top e-mail spammers this month and the simultaneous disappearance of most of the overnight spam messages people used to get (at least temporarily), we know that we will never regain control of the world of Internet e-mail. (That’s “never” looking at the effective planning horizon for electronic communications, which is seven years at best.)

But Internet e-mail is also declining because of its complexity, and people are trying to keep it relevant by reducing its scale and formality. Instead of a streamlined form of a letter, it is becoming a note, or even a text message, completely lacking in text formatting, spacing, even paragraphs. For the average Internet user, e-mail messaging now serves as an awkward extension of text messaging.

It is hard to escape the irony of this. Around 1999 when HTML 4 text formatting found its way into e-mail messages, it was considered a big step forward. Now the removal of the same text formatting is the next step forward. Alvin Toffler warned us years ago, of course, of the dangers of linear thinking. Progress does not often go in straight lines. This kind of immediate about-face is not what we usually expect to see from technology, however.

Another reason for e-mail’s decline is the growth of competing online media. It makes more sense to write new ideas in blogs rather than e-mail messages. Microblogs and social networking sites provide a more efficient way to tell the world how you are doing from day to day. E-commerce sites let you check the status of your orders or your accounts by logging in, relegating e-mail updates to a secondary role. E-mail may still maintain a personal connection, but it is more likely to carry commentary than the substance of the communications that allow people to keep in touch.

Telephone calls are declining for the same reason. I started my own Twitter account with the thought that I could tell the whole world how I’m doing, all at once, with the added reassurance that comes with giving everyone the same story. When I do talk to people on the telephone, I don’t have to spend much of the call repeating the narrative of life. Calls, like e-mail messages, are shorter and perhaps less frequent than before.

E-mail used to be closely connected to Internet service providers, but now, it is hard to see the connection. In the 1980s, e-mail virtually was the Internet; there was no web yet. In the 1990s, e-mail was the biggest service you got from an ISP. Around 2003, ISPs’ e-mail service became so unreliable that there was a mass shift to separate e-mail services. Now, for some people, having an ISP is optional. Along the way, e-mail went from plain ASCII text to rich text to HTML and back to text, though it is more likely to be Unicode text than ASCII text.

Where does e-mail go from here? Some linear trends will, I believe, continue for the next few years: filtering will get more accurate, marketing interests will learn more about people from the text of the e-mail messages they send and receive, spam will emerge in more convincing forms, online retailers will get better at tricking customers into clicking on e-mail links, and the credibility of e-mail as a whole will continue to decline. But it is the nonlinear changes that will be more interesting. E-mail has met such resistance from social networking providers that I believe the recent trend of integrating e-mail with social network web sites will also reverse — or social networking will move to new sites that aren’t so resistant to messages between users. There will be more messaging in more places, but this also means more messages that will be ignored or neglected. The way people respond to that development will do much to determine the shape of e-mail four or five years from now.

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