Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg recently announced at the Nielsen Consumer 360 conference that “email is probably going away”. Her claim was based on a recent Pew Internet study that she said showed only 11% of teens e-mailing every day. Now 11% is a stunningly low number compared to the near universal use of e-mail among us older folk. It also indicates that the next generation is communicating more via social media, something that Facebook is more than happy to crow about. However a closer review of the data indicates that this is not as straightforward as it seems. It turns out that the study actually reported that 11% of teens used email to communicate with friends daily. This is an important distinction since another Pew report shows that68% of teens use e-mail at least occasionally. But the question still remains, will a generation used to communicating via text and social platforms spurn the business communications tool of choice? The current assumption is that when teens grow up, get jobs, clean up their Facebook profile and re-record their mobile voicemail that they’ll be forced to also “grow up” and use e-mail more frequently.
I’m not so sure about that anymore. In 2008 a New York Times article profiled an IBM employee in the Canary Islands who used blogging to replace e-mail to communicate with fellow knowledge workers. Of course it helped that he was a ‘social computing evangelist”, but he found that it kept him just as connected and helped his productivity. Yammer, a workplace communications tool that emulates twitter in a workgroup setting, has made a good deal of progress as a corporate communications tool. Google Wave, while not the product many had hoped for, still showed the length innovators are willing to go to move away from e-mail.
These tools have been created for the present generation as a response to the issues brought about by e-mail, especially the dreaded “reply all”. Email is just not good at collaborative conversation. Think about the decisions you make in replying to a threaded group email discussion. “Should I reply to her e-mail or his or to the most recent one?”, “Should I reply to the entire group or just individuals?” These types of questions slow productivity and collaboration. For the next generation the idea of open, group collaborative discussion as displayed in Facebook is already working in maintaining social relationships. It seems to me that it will be a small step for them to adapt these platforms to the formality and accountability of the workplace. When this happens it may not be on the Facebook platform, but it will bring about the rise of more social based communication and collaboration which could be more effective and productive than the daily toll that e-mail brings to us.
What do you think?
UPDATE: Just saw via a tweet that Salesforce.com has created a new feature called "chatter". It's described as: "a brand-new way to collaborate with people at work. Where the status of important projects and deals are automatically pushed to you — so you're always in the loop". Sounds like the next generation is already here.