With an increasing number of people drawn to social networking sites, will e-mail be elbowed out? Geeta Padmanabhan gives the lowdown

It was called the “Clash of the Titans”. And was followed by dark reports: “E-mail is on ventilator support, its vital signs are fading. Your inbox is hanging by a thread.” Mark Zuckerberg recently made the final announcement: E-mail is dead. Really? Think Mark Twain now: “The report of my death is an exaggeration.”  

Zuckerberg was launching Facebook's new messaging platform and needed a bit of drama. He said, “We don't think a modern messaging system is going to be e-mail.” Maybe. There's enough evidence that the e-mail obsession is fading. Dazeinfo tells us that a study by Neilsen and AbsolutData on social media usage in India puts the number of Internet users connected to social networking sites at 30 million. While 8 per cent of them are on personal mail 1-3 hours a day, 20 per cent live in SN sites for the same duration. Every six months, 45,000 Indian users willingly embrace social networks. We aren't e-mailing less to play the piano or plant a garden. We sms, facebook or tweet our messages. We have shifted loyalty. 

You can see why. The flood of apps in social media is a major lure. Social networking means sharing experiences instantly — a gift to the curious Indian. “Social media is now ingrained in the way tech-savvy Indians live their lives,” said Adrian Terron, VP, Global Communications & Marketing, Nielsen. “It plays multiple roles in an individual's life by… creating linkages between communities and satisfying the need to be networked.” The large young population prefers SN tools to e-mail. And app developers at Facebook hope to attract the ex-e-mail population, at least 500 million of them, to use Facebook mail, where you bi-task to message and access social profiles simultaneously, create a customised Facebook handle to get an @facebook.com email address. Cool. 

So, will the over-used, spam-infested abcd@xyz dot com become history? “It's the horses for courses story,” said NRI-in-Chennai Cheenu, bringing balance to the debate. “With current mobile devices capable of handling multiple social media platforms, we have a portfolio of tools to communicate.” But e-mail isn't going away, he said. Even to get your SMS/FB/Twitter account, you need an e-mail id! While great for spam, e-mail will continue to be indispensable for serious business and personal communications, be it 1-on-1 or 1-to-many. “I suspect much of the trivia will go into FB and other social media. That's less e-mail clutter, making those that arrive worth reading/responding to.”   

E-mail means a lot to the Y2K gen, argues Praveen B, Founder-Director, Creya, Experiential Learning Programmes. An e-mail account was a step up from snail mail, he said. For the nextgen networkers, e-mail has ceded its function to social sites, where people express, share, emote and are part of a group. “E-mail will retain its utility as a formal means of communication, specifically in business and corporate environments where primary need is security, reliability and ability to prioritise what and who you want to communicate with,” he said, predicting that e-mail would evolve to adapt features of social media tools.   

Nathaniel Borenstein, co-creator of the Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) protocol, agrees. “E-mail is still growing,” he said. “For the most part, the platforms fill different functions, and connect with each other. I think they're symbiotic. I'm reluctant to cast them into opposition.” 

It all clicks down to this: Don't see it as “e-mail buried and social media born.” E-mail is catching up with our lazy habits. There's unlimited space, cloud computing manages overflowing inboxes. You can communicate with designated/customised groups. On the social media side, what are messaging systems like Facebook's if they are not e-mail? Isn't it possible to gather information as you do in e-mail? And aren't social media used for business? Has anyone tried IBM's Lotuslive?  

Just one detail separates them: Social tools communicate more in the open. They create knowledge and awareness for those not even in the conversation. E-mail is mainly a one-to-one communicator. You receive messages, hold, move, delete or act on them. With “flow tools” like wikis, micro-blogging, internal SN, messages move past whether you read them or not.  

You needn't be an e-mail or a Zuckerbergian social media loyalist. Be smart and use the right tool for the job in hand.  

FACTS AND FIGURES

* Young people aged 12-17 are using e-mail less.

* The SN user count is nearly 1 billion. In the last three years, the numbers leaped by 40 per cent.

* Comscore: Time spent on Yahoo Mail, Gmail, Hotmail and other e-mail services has declined in most Asia-Pacific regions, the most impacted are India and Malaysia.

* The Radicati Group, Inc.: In 2015, e-mail accounts will leap from 3.1 to 4.1 billion.

* Typical business user sends and receives 105 messages daily. 49 per cent of e-mail users live in the Asia Pacific region.

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012