What’s going to kill email this year at SXSW? Probably nothing, again

Credit: Pixabay

Since Twitter got its breakout in 2007, SXSW Interactive has been known as a proving ground for new communication technologies. For SXSW, Twitter is arguably the poster child: a fledgling company with an idea that became a multi-billion dollar company. And all kick started by the early adopter crowd in what, at the time, was a much sleepier Austin. SXSW has contributed a lot to the rise of Austin on the national tech scene, but is the disruptive impact of these SXSW darling companies overhyped?

One thing is clear, SXSW seems to have a position on disrupting the communication technology that is email. Last year they hosted a panel called Email Is the Devil and Must Be Vanquished. Actually, a common refrain for innovative new communication technologies is that they will replace email. Email recently celebrated its 40th birthday, and it hasn’t changed much in that time. It’s geriatric, maybe pushing 120 in tech years. If email were a politician, it would be under enormous pressure to “retire”. Some companies are even actively plotting its death!

Back in 2007, it was thought that Twitter would replace email. Twitter was originally built on top of SMS, the text messaging system that itself was thought to replace email. Clearly Twitter has become something else, and it didn’t replace text messaging either. Email is still here, with almost 3 billion active users globally.

Asana's 2013 presentation at SXSW explicitly called out email as a productivity killer. Yammer and HipChat have come on strong at SXSW in years past as well, particularly with events in the early 2010s. Email hasn’t noticed: global email volume in 2016 was the highest ever, with over 250 billion emails sent daily.

Group messaging apps were SXSW 2011's biggest trend. Beluga, Grouped{In}, GroupMe, Fast Society and others were cited as the "next big thing". All but GroupMe quickly faded away. Gowalla, Highlight, Meerkat, Peach and Foursquare were all social apps that reached Twitter levels of SXSW buzz before fizzling out. Email shrugs.

Perhaps the most significant threat to email is Slack, which is specifically designed to replace business use of email and promotes itself as such at SXSW. But Slack itself is simply an update of IRC (Internet Relay Chat), which has coexisted with email since 1988. And take a look at the Slack Website. What’s the first thing you see? That’s right, it’s a form to enter your email address.

Email’s role will continue to evolve, and it already has. It is rarely used for personal communication today. WhatsApp, Facebook, SnapChat and a slew of others have assumed that role. And perhaps its role in the workplace will diminish over time. But email is a critical part of how the Internet works and nothing will ever, ever, kill it. It is your fundamental identity on the Internet. You cannot do online banking, shop at Amazon or log into a social network unless you hand over your email address. Without an email address, you are effectively homeless in cyberspace.

Email is now seen as being for serious communication: bills, taxes, login info and customer support. With email, you have an invitation to your customer’s inbox, and as long as you use it respectfully, you can also market your content, products, and services. This is why I work at an email technology company and am not wooing early adopters at SXSW right now: email will be here for at least another 40 years. Twitter and Slack? Not so clear.

Keith Sibson is VP of product marketing at PostUp. He tweets @keithsibson

Keith Sibson

Keith Sibson is VP of product marketing at PostUp

All by Keith