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Email’s Changing Role in Social Media: Digital Archive, Centralized Identity

Alex Iskold wrote a great post recently, Is Email in Danger? This quote lays out the premise of the post:

From the 20th century mail was a fundamental form of communication. The invention of electronic mail (email) changed two things. It became cheap to send mail, and delivery was instant. Email became favored for both corporate and personal communication. But email faces increasing competition. Chat, text messages, Twitter, social networks and even lifestreaming tools are chipping away at email usage.

When it comes to email, there are some parallels to what happened to snail mail with the spread of the Internet and email. The biggest thing is this:

Snail mail found an unexpected opportunity for growth with the rise of the Web.

Email will lose out on some of its uses, but there are some interesting possibilities that will emerge.

The Disruption of Snail Mail

The diagram below depicts the disruption that occurred to snail mail.

I’ve kept the disruption focused on the effects of the Internet. In other words, no fax machine or FedEx in here.

Back in the day, the mail system was the way you got a variety of important communications to other people. Our grandparents wrote letters. L.L. Bean mailed us the stuff we ordered via their catalogs. All our bills came through the mail. We were notified of things like jury service.

With the arrival of the Net, a good portion of snail mail’s portfolio was assumed by other technologies. And it’s had an effect. Here’s a quote from a 2001 General Accounting Office report on the future of the U.S. Postal Service:

Although it is difficult to predict the timing and magnitude of further mail volume diversion to electronic alternatives and the potential financial consequence, the Service’s baseline forecast calls for total First-Class Mail volume to decline at an average annual rate of 3.6 percent from fiscal years 2004 through 2008.

Pretty bad, eh? Electronic alternatives were evaporating the revenues of the post office.

But something else was out there which would help offset these losses in first-class mail: e-commerce. With the growth of the Internet, people got more comfortable shopping online instead of going to their local mall.

Those packages had to get to shoppers somehow. That’s where the U.S. Post Office shined. It already had the infrastructure to get things from a centralized place to multiple individual residences. What got disrupted were the trucking companies who moved merchandise from manufacturers to retailers.

Sure enough, the U.S. Postal Service saw a rebound thanks to online purchases, according to Web Designs Now:

In 2005, revenue from first-class mail like cards and letters, which still made up more than half the Postal Service’s total sales of $66.6 billion, dropped nearly 1% from 2004. But revenue from packages helped make up for much of that drop, rising 2.8%, to $8.6 billion, last year, as it handled nearly three billion packages.

And the dark mood at the U.S. Postal Service headquarters brightened quite a bit:

“Six years ago, people were pointing at the Web as the doom and gloom of the Postal Service, and in essence what we’ve found is the Web has ended up being the channel that drives business for us,” said James Cochrane, manager of package services at the Postal Service.

There is a lesson here for email.

The Disruption of Email

Email is undergoing its own disruption:

Again, similar to the previous diagram, I’m focusing on the web here. No mobile texting as an email disruptor, even though it is.

As Alex outlined in his post, the easy messaging of social media is supplanting the email messages that used to be sent. I haven’t seen any surveys that show the decline in person-to-person communications because of email. But my own experience reflects the migration of communications to the various social media.

  • LinkedIn messages
  • Facebook messages
  • Twitter
  • FriendFeed comments

As Zoli Erdos pointed out in his blog post Email is Not in Danger, Thank You, wikis are growing as the basis for sharing documents. They provide better capabilities than does email: wider visibility, versioning and searchability.

But it’s in notifications where email’s future is bright. Many of us are members of social media sites. As we go through our day, it’s hard to stay on top of activity in each one: new messages, new subscribers, new friend requests, etc.

Where is the central clearinghouse of my multiple social media identities? Email.

Email is the permanent record of what’s happening across various sites. This is actually a very valuable position in which to be. Here are two examples where email helped me:

  • After I wrote a post about nudity on FriendFeed, I lost some FriendFeed subscribers. I know this because my number of followers went down. There was one person in particular I wanted to check. This person wasn’t on my list of followers, and I thought, “maybe wasn’t subscribed to me in the first place?” Checked email, and I did indeed have a follow notification from this person a few weeks earlier. So I knew I’d been dropped.
  • I inadvertently deleted a comment to this blog. On wordpress.com, once deleted, the comment is not recoverable. I was in a bind. But then I realized I get whole copies of comments to this blog emailed to me. So I went to Gmail and found the comment notification. I was able to add the comment back by copying it from my email.

As snail mail had to adjust to the rise of email, so too will email adjust to the rise of social media:

As the number of social media sites and participation in them expands, email will find new growth and value in being the centralized notifications location.

Email = Centralized Identity Management

Much has been written about email being the ultimate social network. The basis for this is your address book and the emails you trade with others. But might there be another opportunity for email?

If email has all these subscription and message notifications, doesn’t it potentially have a role in helping you manage your centralized identity? Gmail could map out my connections across various sites. Find those that are common across the sites. Gauge the level of interaction with others.

Even add APIs from the various sites and let me send out communications from email. Suddenly, email’s back in the communication game as well.

I’m just scratching the surface of what might be possible here.

What Do You Think?

Email’s primary role as a communication medium is diminishing. Many of us are enjoying the easy, contextual basis of communicating via the various social media sites.

But like snail mail before it, email has interesting possibilities for what it will do for us in the future.

What do you think?

*****

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