Mark Twain was famously reported to have once said, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." For a while, now, various pundits have been proclaiming that the use of email was in decline and email would be passed by for other communications technology. Millennials didn't use (or want to use) email, etc. Sitting in a large corporation, I was in the Mark Twain camp, with regard to email. If anything, the volumes were increasing.
I have to wonder, however, if the adventure of Hillary Clinton's email server and the recent series of Wikileaks releases of hacked email accounts will begin to put a stake in the heart of email. Email is a tool that has been around for about twenty to twenty-five years in business. That means that workers who are under 45 or so have never worked in a place where email was not the primary means of textual communication. And those same workers have likely never been without a mobile phone as a means of voice communications. Young people coming into the workplace not only have never known life without the Internet, email, or mobile phones, but they have likely never owned a mobile phone that couldn't get to the Internet or send email.
I've said for a while that I felt something of a sea change in the use of email over the past ten years. One of my biggest pet peeves was what I call "ping-pong email" -- email messages that are brief and go back and forth between people when a phone call or instant message would be a better means of communication. I'd noticed in my workplace that as instant messaging became more ubiquitous, those messages went away. I also noticed the "Let's go to lunch" email was extinct. The business messages that I was getting were more substantial. Email was becoming more formal in the workplace. People were tending to think about what they were writing. Cringe-worthy email was rapidly disappearing. The message that you should think about what you were typing seemingly had gotten through to a lot of people. And we noticed this in our investigations as well. While there are always outliers, the days where people were circulating chain emails, recipes, and racy pictures in business email systems was diminishing. Undoubtedly, a lot of this was changing due to the growth of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and similar social media tools, but I also believe that people started to understand that email isn't very private and tends to hang around for a while.
So if all of that is accurate, why was my Inbox so full? My sense is that email became an asynchronous conference call. Let's unpack that. A face to face conversation or a phone call is generally considered synchronous communication. You're talking to another person in real time. A conference call is generally synchronous communication. Voicemail moves the synchronous conversation to asynchronous by allowing a recording to be retained and listened to later on. A written letter on paper is an asynchronous communication. Instant messaging is intended to be synchronous, but is often asynchronous. Email is something of a hybrid. It behaves asynchronously, but in those "ping-pong" email situations, effectively becomes synchronous. That's all well and good, but I still have a full Inbox. Why?
In a global organization (or even in any organization with team members spread across multiple locations), getting a team together for a meeting or conference call is an arduous task. Someone always can't fit the meeting into their calendar, particularly on short notice. An email is drafted and circulated for comment -- thus, the asynchronous conference call. If the topic seems to require lots of comments, "Reply to All" then fills up the Inbox. Compound this by including extraneous people on a "CC:" or "BCC:" list, and the number of email messages increases almost exponentially. That didn't happen in paper communications days. Certainly, some letters or memos might be circulated to a number of folks, but it was pretty rare for all of those folks to reply to the entire distribution list. With email, one click and everyone gets your thoughts. One more click and you can send the message thread on to people who were never part of the original distribution.
The ease of circulation of an email communication is, in my opinion, what people are becoming aware of. I think everyone has had the experience of finding out that an email that was believed to be private was suddenly being circulated to places never imaged -- often with unfortunate results. Now couple in the recent exposure of political email messages. Messages once thought private are posted for all to see on the Internet. Messages that are, perhaps, less circumspect than the author would be in a public forum. "Missing" messages are found in other email accounts, backups, and archives. Huge message volumes are easily searched. Single messages are taken out of context, "tone" is interpreted differently than intended. I've said for a long time that I dread the day where I have to testify about an email message and try to interpret the meaning of an emoticon or someone else's "LOL". (Thankfully, there will likely be a whole new realm of attorney objections to that.)
But let's go back to the top. Is email dead? I'd suggest that we will see considerable change in how people use email over the next few years. Stronger and more user friendly encryption, not only of the communication in transit, but while at rest, will become commonplace. People who do not want their communications read by others will simply stop using email. New technology to deal with "asynchronous conference calls" (think tools like Slack) will come into more common use. I also suspect that email may revert to status as an "envelope" which carries either a formal attached message (likely encrypted) or a link to content that requires authentication to view. This will enable sensitive information to be protected and access controlled, with the additional ability to ensure retention periods.
As with many things, a long, slow evolution, coupled with revolutionary change in response to perceived threats and unintended consequences.