Alex Steer

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Turn down the noise, turn up the silence

860 words

Sathnam Sanghera argues in the Times today that 'email is no longer a useful method of communication'. His reasons are, in short, that there is too much of it (the 'victim of its own success' argument), and that social networking sites 'allow you to message lots of people at the same time much more efficiently than e-mail' (and eliminate the need for some kinds of email) and 'encourage brevity of communication'.

The evidence for the death of email is presented as follows:

It is true, of course, that e-mail is still growing: according to a recent study, in the month of August this year, the number of e-mail users increased by 21 per cent. But social networking is growing faster: over the same period, the number of social network users grew by 31 per cent.

So continued growth means decline, apparently. Over the course of the article the position weakens, from the death of email to the 'peaking' of email to the assertion that 'e-mail is a long way from dying out... but it is beginning to fade'. The final sentence expects that email will '[end] up as the preferred method of communication for business users, the elderly, the helplessly middle-aged, the hopelessly nostalgic, estate agents, solicitors and credit card companies.' After all (we are asked a couple of paragraphs before) 'when was the last time a teenager sent you an email?'

Good question. The answer is: in about 2002. Because that was the last time any of my friends were teenagers. If I were a parent, I would not expect any form of electronic communication from my teenage children before they were 18 because they would, presumably, live in my house. Even if they didn't, teenagers are not known for their love of sending personal messages to their parents. There is some survey research from a few years back (not to mention the odd over-hyped thinkpiece) suggesting that teenagers use email rather less than older internet users, but all of this needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Email remains outstandingly popular among teens, even if IM and social network messaging are jostling for first place.

The big unspoken assumption is that the habits of teenagers are supremely important. When last I checked, 'business users, the elderly, the helplessly middle-aged, the hopelessly nostalgic, estate agents, solicitors and credit card companies' were quite a large constituency. The comparative growth of social networking sites is also not a fair comparison. These platforms offer lots of features, not just messaging, whereas email does not. They are also much newer (email was invented in 1965, social networking platforms in the late 1990s by the most generous measure), so at a higher point in the hype cycle.

Email is a language technology, like handwriting, print or SMS, and like any language technology it lives or dies by its applicability to the lives and needs of language users. But not all language users are the same. Teenagers, for example, have disproportionate amounts of free time and a fairly low need to archive what they write. Archive-poor environments like IM and attention-diverting environments like Facebook are therefore much more acceptable venues for using language technology to teenagers than they would be to busy professionals, for example. No-one would say that Twitter has never got off the ground because its teenage demographic is small compared to its twenty- and thirtysomething user base. Nor could the replacement of email by substantially email-like messaging systems embedded within social networks really be called a revolution in language technology. Email would not be dead even if teenagers were deserting it in droves.

Sathnam Sanghera began his piece with an anecdote about the agony of waiting for a reply to an emailed invitation. In doing so he completely forgets the sheer joy of delaying replying to an email so that one can get on with doing something more important. In this, his reaction is itself quite teenage. It might do him, and all of us, good to step back and ask whether there is any value in calling the 'death' of a still-flourishing language technology. If the constant always-on noise of modernity is too much, I recommend reading Harold Love (1993) Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England for its account of how one language culture (manuscript) flourished long after another (print) had in theory superseded it. Love warns against 'blindness to the nature and persistence of this culture', which many early modern writers preferred for the sense of privacy - of quiet - that it gave their work.

# Alex Steer (01/12/2009)