The Social Web Prays at Email’s Altar

[qi:gigaom_icon_social_networking] Every so often a new technology comes along, promising to revolutionize the world of communications. And in the end, it prays at the altar of email. Despite being messy and unstructured, email, which will turn 50 in a couple of years, remains the hub of our Internet experience.

Take this morning — I opened my inbox to find a dozen Twitter direct messages and a few replies to my posts on FriendFeed which, in turn, I replied to via email, Google Reader alerts (with links shared by my network), and a barrage of Facebook messages (pokes, new friends, etc.) This morning, Facebook was on my bad side because for some odd reason, I received an email saying the settings for what I want (only events-related information) had changed. I wasn’t sure how or why, but that happens. I grumbled a little, shook my fist at the Facebook gods, and then went back to change my settings.

Given that these services are meant to be alternatives to long-in-the-tooth email, I find their relationship with the medium ironic, because these (and most web services) need the aging technology to get people’s attention — not to mention the much-needed page views.  The funny thing is that despite all the new options, email growth isn’t looking to slow down anytime soon. (Related Research From GigaOM Pro, EMail: The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated. Subscription required, sign up for $79 a year.)

The Radicati Group, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based research company, recently released a study showing that the number of worldwide email users will increase to almost 1.9 billion by 2013 compared with over 1.4 billion in 2009. Radicati projects that worldwide email traffic will reach 507 billion messages per day by 2013, almost double the 2009 figure of 247 billion messages per day.

That is why one can’t blame these new social web services —  they need to show growth to get to the victory line — and email is the easiest way to get there.

As to why email is indispensable to them, the only logical explanation that I can come up with is that most of us are happy with the comfortable familiarity of our inbox interfaces. Sometimes I think of email clients as a pair of old shoes — not ready to give up, despite holes in the soles. As we become more mobile, I wonder if we are going to use our mobile inboxes as messaging aggregators of sorts.

I use myself as an example — I just don’t have enough time in the day to keep up with an increasing number of communication channels, so instead I end up using email as a crutch of sorts. I am sure many of you feel the same way. What makes things worse is that no one has done, or even remotely tried to do, something radical and game-changing with the standard email client/interface, apart from making some cosmetic and interesting changes. (A good example would be Postbox, a San Francisco-based startup launched by the former Thunderbird team.)

Back in July 2007, I wrote a column for Business 2.0 called “Fixing Email: Once a Savior, Now a Scourge.” I essentially lamented how we were using our inboxes for everything that doesn’t need to be an email, especially considering there were many different technologies that did their jobs admirably. What I thought we needed was a smart inbox:

A smart inbox would — all in one interface — catch spam in junk filters, display the wine reminder in an IM, move company news to an RSS feed, and intelligently negotiate appointment requests with your calendar in the background.

I guess if I had to write that piece today, it would include Facebook messages and status updates and keeping track of Twitter posts. For a minority of users, the ability to track FriendFeed-style conversations would make sense as well, though I don’t think it’s a pressing issue as of yet. Perhaps that’s the reason why many folks are excited about Google Wave, while I have been cautious about it.

As I wrote earlier, my biggest concern was not with the technology but more with the issue of the ingrained behavior change that it required. “Email is the most successful protocol on the planet…We can do better,” is how Lars Rasmussen, one of the creators of the platform, described the ambition of the effort. He described it as a whole new communication system. No doubt about it –- too new. As we have seen time and again, the new social tools still tend to depend a lot on email.

Google Wave’s launch obviously created a healthy debate among our readers. One of our readers wrote:

When Google initially married email and chat in Gmail, I was not very enthusiastic about it. I preferred to use the separate GTalk client for chatting. At some point, which I am not even aware of, it just became more convenient to simply chat in the same place where I emailed. I hardly ever open the GTalk client now. I can see a similar thing happening with Wave. If a single interface marries email, chat, photo sharing, document sharing, so on and so forth, and if it is done right, I think [a] lot of people will end up using it as the default online communication platform. The final product we use may not necessarily be from Google. Somebody else might create a great version of the Wave. But I can easily imagine something like this being very popular within five years from now.

Another reader, Boris Kraft, wrote:

The way it will “replace” email is by building a bridge between the wave and the email protocol. I can then use wave, you will receive email. For you it will look like it always did — messy, unstructured, etc. For me, it will probably be quite a different experience.

I hope he is right — for I am quite tired of the mess that our inbox has become. It’s just that somehow when a new communication and interaction technology comes up, hoping to supplant email, it gets subsumed in that giant, unstructured mess.


Chart courtesy of The Radicati Group.