How the shape of the earth dictates email’s longevity
Nathan Zeldes, Nov. 4, 2012
Email was invented in 1971, with a message crossing from one end of a room to the other via ARPANET, and has gone on to become a major presence in the life of every knowledge worker on the planet. We devote to it 20 hours a week, complaining endlessly about the overload and the stress. And yet – despite the availability of many more modern tools like IM and various Social Media, email is still here, based on the same paradigm it had 41 years ago. In fact, when Google introduced Wave, that exuberantly media-rich social messaging platform, they said it’s time to reinvent email to match the 21st century; but Wave has since followed the dodo and email is still here.
I’d like to suggest one reason for this seeming paradox – an attribute of email that is mostly absent in the tools seeking to replace it, and which represents a deep advantage for many users.
This relates to the fact that the earth is still (with all due respect to Thomas Friedman) round. In a globalized economy, this means that some of the people you must communicate with will be asleep when you have something to tell them or ask of them. And there’s more – cultural diversity ensures that holidays and weekends vary widely, so much so that Prof. Erran Carmel of American University has found that only about a quarter of the workdays in a year are common to all the countries where a large corporation may run its business. In this messy reality, email shines for its primary attribute: it is asynchronous. It is a messaging platform where messages arrive, accumulate, and persist until read. No matter whether your recipient is asleep, celebrating a local holiday, or on vacation, they’ll get your message when they return to their work.
I remember this aspect well from the eighties, when I was first exposed to email. Working in Israel for an American company, email allowed me to correspond with my US coworkers with a “guaranteed next day response”. The guarantee has since evaporated, alas, due to email overload, but the basic concept has remained: you send the mail out in your daytime, when the other fellow’s asleep, and you get a reply when you’re awake some other day. For global distributed teams, email solves one major issue caused by our spherical home world – it empowers members to work together without staying awake at all hours. Like the Fax machine, its extreme usefulness is keeping it alive.
True, Gen Y and Gen Z folks have different habits than their elders, and they bring with them from school a preference for Facebook and SMS as primary communication channels; but then, their life as students requires no participation in hectic global teams. I suspect that once they enter the enterprise they will retain Facebook as a social tool and even use it to good advantage for some work activity, but will stick to email for most of their globally oriented team interaction.
The challenge for us who combat Information Overload is therefore to help organizations and individuals use introduce some email best practice strategies to allow us to manage email in better, more effective, less stressing ways; because – unless someone finally invents a planet-flattener of some sort – email rules, it isn’t going away anytime soon!
Nathan Zeldes, 12 November 2012