Tech Law

Cyberlaw prediction #2: The death of email

By Mark Leiser |

January 31, 2014 | 7 min read

The latest in a series of very loose cyberlaw predictions for 2014, which also includes: More social media lunacy. The cloud gets a whole lot larger. The internet starts to erase itself, much to Google’s chagrin. Facebook implodes. For the first time in the history of 3D printing, a 3D printer gets printed by a 3D printer. Everyone locks everything on the internet down. Legal challenges to Cameron’s porn filters. The Daily Mail continues to advocate for the blocking of every offensive website, except its. Intellectual Property lawyers continue sending letters demanding things be removed from the internet, highlighting their complete misunderstanding of the Streisand effect.

At number 2: The death of email

In my other life, I lecture the odd law class. Over the last few years, I have found communicating with students to be increasingly frustrating. I have been sending emails, but no-one seems to read them. Now, I am sophisticated enough to know that I might not have anything interesting to say to the typical 18-19 year old. However, I have started to notice something else recently as well - the kids don’t use email like I use email, which explains, in theory, my difficulty with getting information out there to different types of students. I recently asked one of my classes how many of them had the university email service on their phone. I was surprised at how few actually opted to receive communications this way. I used to think that today’s students were inundated with a barrage of pointless communications, but then something struck me: What if it wasn’t the students who were out of touch, but me?

This insight begs the question, what is an email? It is a form of electronic communication. And like the telegram, the landline, the facsimile, the pager, and even the CB radio, it is a method of communication from one person to another, or to a group. It’s contribution came from its negligible cost to send and receive real time information. But like any new and open communication form, with it came things we didn’t like so much like SPAM. Then there were the other issues with email that no-one ever discusses, like its inability to convey tone or sarcasm, or emotion. It also lacks privacy controls. Any email I send can be forwarded to anyone with an email account without me knowing. It can be printed and dispersed. And it can also be used ineffectively. Of all of the emails you receive, how many emails do you actually read properly, or file away for another day.

Large organisations like corporations and universities have implemented electronic communications by treating students as nodes, communicating directly to the node via email. But social media has largely changed the reliance we have on email to communicate with each other. Businessmen and women have lamented for a long time about having to "get through all my emails" - which often indicates a lack of productivity and faux work. A report by McKinsey and Co suggests that nearly a third of the time spent during the working day is spent answering and writing emails.

With the next generation of students seemingly averse to this form of communication and new evidence suggesting that there is much more value in enhanced communications techniques, knowledge sharing, and collaboration, is it time to ask: Is the email dead?

We rightly regulate spam. We tend to navigate to email services like Google and Yahoo which have done a good job at filtering the bad stuff out, but this doesn’t resolve the problems businesses have with engagement. If an organisation depends on consumers and the ability to influence them, then value comes from engagement through social media and online forums, not sending emails. The engagement achieved through two-way multi-person communications allows for analysis and insight to gain a better perspective of what consumers want from a particular product, service or brand. Email does not provide this.

Companies that have a high proportion of interaction workers can realise tremendous productivity improvements through faster internal communication and smoother collaboration. With email, collaboration often gets lost in the noise. Value and efficiency will come from smoother, richer collaborative methods. Email has simply lost its value and is actually having a negative effect. It is declining, thanks to new tools that we use to communicate with each other in place of the email. We may not be paying attention, but we have moved to real time communications like Twitter, collaborative Office suites, project management systems and social media services like Facebook Messaging and Twitter. Customer service is still done online, but we tend to do it in open systems like social media, and not closed ones like email services.

A prediction: someone will make a small fortune fixing this. McKinsey’s report also identified that we spent 20 per cent of our time looking for information that someone else already has. The average worker is spending more time ensuring that everyone knows what everyone else is doing than actually doing work that is good and meaningful. And with companies spending billions on enterprise products that claim to make inroads into the problems of productivity, no-one seems to realise that these things do the same thing in a different way, but it is still the same thing - communication between people rather than coordination of work.

So take note of this Melissa Mayer, Yahoo CEO: Your recent upgrade is a beautiful upgrade to the Yahoo Mail design, but it is still the same old email system - a social graph connecting nodes with a personal relationship to one another. What we need is a work graph - a way of organizing tasks, ideas, clients, goals, agenda items alongside information about that work, including relevant conversations, files, status, metadata. This should be linked to information on how it all works together and who is responsible for the work. Whoever figures out who to do this will make me relevant to the students of mine who already treat email with contempt, which is preventing them from achieving the work that will get them through to the next challenge in their academic careers.

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