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, 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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About Hutch Carpenter
Chief Scientist Revolution Credit

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

  1. Shey says:

    Good thoughts on this one Hutch. E-mail for me, thanks to Gmail, is mostly a searchable repository for information. It’s also an avenue to I collect and organize tasks/information but it’s by no means the only way.

    In terms of Centralized Identity Management I think what you’re suggesting is possible, at least indirectly. We already have services that can parse our email contact lists to find friends, so surely it’s possible to the same for our own identification purposes.

  2. Geoff says:

    On thing not on your list is the integration ability of email in social media. It is the simplest way to transport data between applications and services with a common protocol that services can be written for (and most already have “email this” kind of functionality already). I wrote about this a few months back here:

  3. aureliusmaximus says:

    Man I love following you guys. Thanks so much for pulling all of that together – the US Post Office is an amazing example that applies to a million different situations.

  4. markdykeman says:

    These are good ideas, but one thing that would concern me as that people often have multiple E-Mail accounts: work, school, home, etc. Also, people don’t always fill out their profiles 100% accurately, assuming that their E-mail provider stores this kind of data.

    In my opinion, I don’t think E-Mail is going anywhere anytime soon because it is ubiquitous, much more so than any other social application, and everyone has access to E-Mail (or could have and most people take advantage of it). However, whether it can do everything that other social sites can do remains to be seen.

  5. yeah, we knew that email was massively and badly used for too many kind of services. For eg., many corps are still using it to -share- files.
    It’s changing role is a long awaited event. Thanks to Social Media, better practices can now be pushed… again.

  6. Shey – Gmail is good for managing and finding data. Powerful search and tagging. I can see Google adding analytics to the package down the road.

  7. Geoff – you wrote that post from Gmail? How’d you do that? That’s a really interesting use for it.So the blog has the post, but Gmail also has a copy?

  8. Marco – thanks for reading it. I also like the U.S. Post Office example, because it points out how established business can find new life, taking advantage of their existing infrastructure.

  9. Mark – I tend to use a single email for my personal social media stuff, work email for my work-related stuff. The one thing about email is that address books are stubborn. People keep your email in their address book, and getting everyone to to change email addresses is painful. I’d expect people to settle on one email over time for personal use. The work one would change, but that’s fine given the context of enterprise 2.0 apps.

  10. Thierry – agree that changing the email practice has big benefits. Some companies are starting to with wikis, but there’s a lot of opportunity left.

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  12. Powerfully simple illustrations as always. Thanks for pointing me to this writeup, it rounds out my thoughts on the matter.

    Your emphasis on context is the key here for me.

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  17. Settor40 says:

    In the decline of civilization, communities do not go down by the same path by which they came up. ,

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    However, it does help to have a lawyer advise you and represent you with Civil Protection Orders. ,

  19. ezDigg says:

    Thank for all sharing

  20. Lisa Ray says:

    Very interesting post. There is a strong possibility of Email emerging as a system addressing specific needs in the face of growing social media space.

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