The vast majority of electronic communication today is via social media, according to Paul Greenberg, a relationship management consultant. At first I didn't believe it. But then I thought about the viral nature of communication via social networks, and the statistic started to make sense.

So, I have been thinking for a while that I need to stop using email, but I was never sure my hunch was right. Finally, through the process of deciding to put photos of my kids on my blog, I realized that email is now old-fashioned. Here's why:

1. Email is inefficient.

Email is one-to-one communication and social networks one-to-many communication. (Here’s a good link about that.) If you have something meaningful or thoughtful to say, why not say it to many people? It would mean that more people share ideas and more people understand your way of thinking. Also, there are so many pieces of our life that we tell at different times to different people. Why not just say it once? We all have email overload: we parse our messages into 40 one-to-one messages instead of just a single one-to-many message.

Email is also an inefficient way to hone your writing skills. A Stanford study shows that people develop better writing in social media than in the classroom. In the classroom you write for a single reader, the teacher, who is a captive audience—it's her job to read your writing. But in social media, you have to persuade a group of readers to accept your way of thinking, and you have to be interesting. So you will get better and better at your job—which is, for all of us on some level, communicating—if you use social media instead of email.

2. The intimacy of email is overrated.

If you want intimate communication, send a handwritten letter. I receive one of these almost every week, so I know the custom is not dead. And I pay attention to them much more than email. The act of seeing someone's handwriting is intimate because handwriting reveals so much about a person. Email is not intimate. It's a workplace tool, and it's also a pile of junk we're always trying to get to the bottom of.

Most of the information you send via email is for work, (which is the premise of Seth Godin’s recent advice about using email). Email is not a good tool for ideas. It's a good tool for sniggling details. You don't want to spend your life in the irrelevant details of mundane tasks. So the fewer emails you send, the more time you spend in the realm of either execution or ideas—more powerful than details. Execution happens outside of email, and ideas should happen in groups—which means social networks.

3. Your privacy is overrated.

First of all, you don't have a lot of privacy. You are getting everything online for free, and in exchange you are letting someone sell your data. You don't have enough money or enough time in your life to use the Internet in a way that does not invade your privacy. But, so what? The value of your privacy is very little in the age of transparency and authenticity. Privacy is almost always a way of hiding things that don’t need hiding.

In social media, the relevant parts of you will fall to the relevant places, which is why you can be your true self wherever you go, and it's okay that you don't have privacy. Your employer is not interested in your profile on Facebook because it doesn't reveal anything about how you perform at work—it reveals what you're like at a party. Employers will read the parts of you that are professional, and friends will read your personal announcements.

So this is why I'm comfortable posting photos of my kids here. I used to worry that it would invade my kids' privacy. But I'm realizing now that privacy won't matter when my kids are growing up. When I interviewed media theorist Rebecca Blood, she said that kids today already manage their online lives like they are Hollywood celebrities and therefore their parents cannot guild them about privacy online.

If this is what we're doing now, I can only imagine how little privacy will matter ten years from now.

Also, one of the great things about social media is that it gives voices to groups that have hereto-with been without one. Like the experience of parenting. Sally Mann was called a pornographer when she published her stunning photos of her kids. Today, mommy bloggers publish these sort of photos (though admittedly not as stunning) every day.

Also, I am struck by this post on the blog Peaches & Coconuts. Debroah writes about struggling to get through the week when her partner is out of town on business. And she says she doesn't over-schedule her kids so they will go to Harvard. She over-schedules them so she can get through the day. And, she notes that her kids are not going to get into Harvard anyway, she can already tell.

Many people would say, “What will the kids say when they read this?” But you know what? If we don't write about our kids we cannot write about our experience parenting. It's like when women first wrote about orgasms. I'm sure people said, “What will your husband think?”

Who benefitted from the conversation? Everyone, right? Good orgasms make good sex for everyone. And good parenting makes better lives for everyone. And transparency trumps privacy every time. So put your ideas in social media, not email.

So, here’s my contribution to a more transparent conversation about what life is really like at the intersection of work and life: a photo of my son. I think it should be titled Breaking from Work to Eat Lunch with Superman:

130 replies
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  1. Rellacafa
    Rellacafa says:

    Very interesting post… I really like the point raised above that this could be a return to a smaller community minded way of thinking, the strange difference is that, especially with Twitter, we are parts of communities of thoughts, even though we might never know the people having those thoughts in the physical world.

    As for social media replacing email? Another important thing to consider is that social media news streams are constantly flowing and nothing is saved or guaranteed views by everybody you are connected with online. For example, you could tweet an invitation for drinks, but a couple of hours later that message will have faded away so far back in the stream that no one would see it unless searching for it. With emails, one can be assured that it will sit there and wait for its viewer, no matter how many more messages pile upon it.

    I agree with a lot of what you have written in regards to sharing valuable thoughts, it makes perfect sense to share these with a large audience. The ability to do this, however, is slowly turning email into the handwritten letters of the 21st Century. If someone has taken the time to send a personalised email to me, I find that as wonderful as receiving a letter, whereas if someone tweets at me or writes on my facebook wall, that’s far less personal.

  2. Bob Olwig
    Bob Olwig says:

    Penelope, I enjoyed reading your post. Your tag line is “advice at the intersection of life and work.” This post must be geared towards the “life” end of that intersection.

    I don’t believe we’re nearing the end of email in either “life” and certainly not in the work environment. From my experience, email is extremely efficient and provides the one inbox for managing much of my workload. Email also provides the intimacy required in a business setting and I can tell you that privacy is certainly not over rated.

    In looking at the 100 or so emails I send and recieve each day, there may be a couple that could have been text messages but I can’t envision any of them being posted to my blog, linked-in or facebook. In fact, you wouldn’t go far in business (especially in public companies) if you did not heed compliance, regulatory & privacy requirements.

    Just as email didn’t signal the end of the telephone, social media does not signal the end of email.

    A final thought. It’s interesting to note that email notification is one of the most basic features of many social media tools. In fact, your blog allows users to “subscribe to comments via email.” and “To subscribe to new posts” via email.

    Best Regards, Bob

  3. VeloCelt
    VeloCelt says:

    A primary thesis of this essay on the presumed benefits of social media is that one can broadcast his or her ideas like some sort of digital Johnny Appleseed, a corollary being that email is inefficient for this purpose. Seth Godin's piece (which you linked) takes issue with this. His first two points are: "1. Don't send the same email to large numbers of people, and 2. If you have more than a few people to contact, you'll be tempted to copy and paste or mail merge. Don't. … If it's important enough for someone to read, it's important enough for you to rewrite."

    As difficult as it may seem for our narcissistic culture to grasp, not every idea that flits through one's mind is worthy of sharing with the entire planet. TMI. The growing tsunami of useless information facilitated by social media ultimately results in devaluing ideas, broadly speaking (Lance Armstrong tweets us when he trims his toenails); meaningful dialog is lost in the ever-increasing wall of white noise. Godin cautions, "Just because you have someone's email address doesn't mean you have the right to email them." With social media, you have the entire world's email addy. Stifle your hubris. Be wise, be respectful, use it with discretion. Make your contribution count.

    "The intimacy of email is overrated." I would agree that email is bereft of "tone" and frighteningly open to misinterpretation. All the more reason to withhold some thoughts. At the very least, one should read, edit, think, and re-read before hitting – €˜send.' Still, email can be a very intimate medium, indeed. Not so social media. IMHO, the pseudo-intimacy of social media is overrated. We have successfully stripped the word "friend" of any meaning, and more's the pity.

    Privacy is NOT overrated, it is necessary to our emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Digital exhibitionism can be devastating and very difficult to repair after the fact. As Carly Simon lamented, "We have no secrets, we tell each other everything. …. Sometimes I wish, I often wish, that I never knew some of those secrets of yours." Your baby is gorgeous and unique–to you. Your bowling trophies only have meaning to you.

    "I can only imagine how little privacy will matter ten years from now." Cultural norms do not exist on a continuum; they ebb and flow. You shouldn't presume that certain social proclivities will continue down this deconstructionist path, for just as a boom economy will surely go bust, the social pendulum swings in both directions.

    I'm no Luddite, and I agree that social media will expand our worldview–which is a good thing–and the ways in which we pursue social intercourse will be irrevocably altered. Ultimately, we will learn how to get the most from the various social media platforms and tools available to us. But in the meantime, let's stride into this Bold New World with both eyes open wide and resist the temptation to drink the koolaid.

    Make every day count!
    (we won’t get any of ’em back…)
    Aden~

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think you give some good arguments for the efficiency and usefulness of social media but I don’t think it should or will be to the exclusion of email. I think it really comes down to the correct and judicious use of each tool depending on the situation and individuals involved. Each of us has a different perception of and need for privacy. I think it is nice and gracious of you to share your photos with us now but remember that you were able to exercise your right to privacy until you felt comfortable enough to relinquish it.
    Communications on social media sites are not facilitated if there isn’t an option for private messages and other privacy controls on the site. Twitter has direct messaging and Brazen Careerist.com allows you to send a private message. However, having said that, even activating privacy settings isn’t a total guarantee of security so the best policy is to assume anything you do online will become public at some point. Web site policies change and glitches occasionally occur.
    There’s an article at the Financial Times ( http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/e788112e-45ca-11df-9e46-00144feab49a.html ) which addresses Facebook under the privacy microscope. Facebook pushed the privacy boundary last December by implementing changes that made most of its users’ personal information public by default. However it is also taking great pains to put users in control of their own information so regulators have not yet targeted Facebook with new legislation.
    Maybe if we’re made to feel we have control over the content we intend to be public and it actually works out that way that privacy will not be such an issue. I’m especially concerned about identity theft and medical records being compromised.

  5. Custom Bobble
    Custom Bobble says:

    With each passing day, I am finding that I hate email more and more. It is so hard to figure out the feeling and emotion behind the words. You cannot recognize sarcasm, joking, manners, etc. It is so impersonal! I agree with you 100% that nothing beats face to face contact or the handwritten word!

  6. Simon Thompson
    Simon Thompson says:

    Facebook is great for email, I don’t really care about anyone’s updates though. And for the sites I’m connected to at facebook, I visit the sites to see what’s up. Twitter’s great for Gilt Groupe, but I don’t know what else. I don’t think anything is gonna beat email because for me personally when I get email I know it’s going to be about something I want to read. I don’t need to be notified about my friends pb&j sandwhich at facebook and twitter because I don’t need to know, and they wouldn’t lend me these details at the best social networking site you will ever visit; your local independent coffee shop. We all gotta get outside people.

  7. Mia
    Mia says:

    Thank you, Penelope! You have articulated what I have felt for years now. Email is simply a tool to communicate, but when people really want to connect online, they do it through social media. I’ve always felt email is such a cold environment where people hit you over the head with offers and want to leech your time. That’s why Spam is so rampant!

    But blogs and social media… that’s where someone like me can get lost in a blog like yours. Not lost in a bad way, but a way where I’m on my own time, reading what I want. And connecting the way that I dictate.

    Again, thanks for such a great post and for giving so graciously to the online community!

  8. Will
    Will says:

    Penelope,

    Maybe. But remember that little event on 17th? Perhaps it’s a good thing you were still using email a year or two ago!

    And I have a sneaking feeling that one fine morning we may wake up and find that privacy actually was important. But gone forever.

    For now, OF COURSE we need email. If only to drop comments into your fine posts.

  9. Joe Campbell
    Joe Campbell says:

    Believe what you have missed in your summary is e-mail as a task management tool. Here the strength of e-mail allows one to manage and prioritize pending tasks in “their” time. However what I do agree with is your summation of the loss of privacy, can’t tell you the number of people daily I hear whine about this. My answer is get over it as its all out there anyway! With the sophistication of data connecting algorithms, what once were pieces now become whole.

  10. Karen
    Karen says:

    As long as there are stalkers, privacy matters.
    As long as employers are willing to hire or fire based on religion, sexuality or political opinions, privacy matters.
    As long as there are people blogging about unpopular, job or safety threatening opinions in small towns, privacy matters.
    As long as the Internet is used as a tool for strengthening civil society despite the presence of an authoritarian regime, privacy matters.
    Transparency in good government is mandatory, but the transparency of citizens must not be enforced. If you want to be transparent in your online life, you should be able to do so. However, when the conditions for being transparent while safe and employed are removed there must be an opt-out process. Calls for the preservation of choice will only get louder in the future.

  11. conpear
    conpear says:

    I use both email and social networks (facebook and myspace) however I prefer to use my personal email for one to one conversations. For one thing, I get them on my cell phone so I’m never out of touch (yes I know I can do facebook and myspace on there too but my phone is older and doesn’t have color… so it’s messy looking). I also like email better because I can download the messages at home and save them on my computer, or forward them to several people if it’s funny.

    Thanks for another great post Penelope. Oh, and I love the pic at the end. lol

  12. sandy
    sandy says:

    I doubt we’ll see the end of email anytime soon. Facebook is good for communicating to the target group there: family, friends, the world (depending on your settings). But I think email will continue to be used to 1:1 communication where you do want to share thoughts privately. If anything will kill email in the long run though it will be spam not social media.

    Great pics of the wedding and your sons !

  13. Karen Waters
    Karen Waters says:

    Although I use email a lot, I don’t think it’s very intimate and it’s almost all work related in my case. In the future I bet social media will continue to be used more and more, but nothing beats the sincerity of a hand written note!

  14. Tim
    Tim says:

    Hi Penelope,

    You have got to be kidding. Social media? Like facebook updates? Twitter? Let’s make society even more impersonal and narcissistic than it already is.

    No one’s going to go back to writing actual letters. It’s too much of a hassle. Brave New World here we come . . .

    Tim

    • Gwenny
      Gwenny says:

      I, personally, like this Brace New World. I have friends on every continent, folks I regularly interact with. People I have known for decades, since the days of BBSs. It gives me windows into other cultures, other worlds. Without social media, I would never have met any of these people.

      And paper correspondence is over rated. Although I still have every letter my best friend wrote to me in Jr and Sr High School, she threw mine away years ago . . .all of the things I poured my sorrows and joys and hopes into . . .poof, gone. That will not happen with email and other electronic correspondence, since I keep a copy as well.

      The world changes. A century and a half ago, few folks could write letters. Any family not within easy travel never heard from each other again. Now, if I choose, I can have contact with my family all day long from anywhere I am. Sure, folks like you will decry how we aren’t doing “what we’ve always done”. But . . .well, less to centuries is HARDLY always.

  15. Karine
    Karine says:

    Hi, I do agree that we do not have much privacy, but I am really upset that FB (or Google) may sell the personal information they get from my page or my email to third parties, which in turn may re-sell it, etc… I am sure that the facts that I have 3 kids, live in the heart of Paris and go on holiday abroad has a lot of marketing value, but this is not what i signed for…

    • Gwenny
      Gwenny says:

      Then, Karine, delete your account. No one is forcing you to have one. Or to put all your information there. You, ultimately, control what information is released.

  16. Gauri
    Gauri says:

    I love the way Google Wave strikes the right balance between email and social media. I think it’s the future of email that you’re talking about.

  17. Susan
    Susan says:

    But in conversation, do you always speak to everyone in the room? Doesn’t everyone sometimes have smaller, more intimate conversations? One-on-one email is the exact equivalent.

  18. Lance
    Lance says:

    This post is for personal communication, correct? There’s no way this is correct for business and especially b2b. Email, face-to-face, and phone calls are the ONLY way to get deals done.

  19. john gaines
    john gaines says:

    Social media will not kill email, but it will force email to evolve the way TV forced radio to evolve.

    Email is still great for one-to-one communication. That's great for those of us who have not chosen to live our lives in the public eye. And if you're forced to (or choose to) live in the world of detail, email is more useful than ever.

    I think privacy is more important than ever now that it's under assault. Yes, big companies sell my data, but they do it at some remove from my individual identity. Social media rubs people's noses in opinion. My friends hold wildly divergent beliefs, and laying it all out there on Facebook would lead to conversations that simply do not need to happen.

    I think we're gonna have email to kick around for a long time.

    John

  20. Dondra Lewis
    Dondra Lewis says:

    One significant difference between email and social networking, is the paper trail. In business, as in some personal interactions, email correspondence is the easy way to refer to, track, copy, etc. That’s all. For me, email has been helpful in business as well as complex personal interactions, in a way that Facebook can not. I think that both are important, but I do not think that email can be duplicated except by handwritten correspondence, and if any of you are like me, my hand struggles to sign my name in ink anymore, because my fingers only want to type.

    Dondra

  21. betty in munich
    betty in munich says:

    My brothers and I all chipped in and recently got my 80+ year old mom a computer and got her started on email. As I live far away, it is a great new way for us to keep in touch. At first I replied to all her emails because they were just so cute. Then one day, I was just unusually busy and didn’t respond straight away. A few hours later I got a phone call from my mother asking if I had received her email. After a brief chat, I just couldn’t help but giggle….she had CALLED me (on a land-line) to see if I had received her EMAIL!

  22. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    There will always be a need for email, personal communication, or whatever you want to call it. Some communication by its nature will need to be private or will apply to only an individual or certain groups of people. I think the best part of this post and the most compelling reason for the judicious use of email is that email is inefficient. Many discussions carried on by email are not by their nature necessarily private and other people would benefit from the dialog. This is where social media shines and should be utilized. Examples include the networks over at BrazenCareerist.com , other web sites that host forums on various topics, Twitter, Facebook, etc.
    Email is normally used because the sender is usually looking for a more immediate and personable response to their targeted audience that they don’t feel they can get otherwise on a myriad of other possible social media sites. Many people expect a response from an email whereas response to commentary on a social media site is more of an optional thing. Also people are going to use what is easiest, universal, and most familiar to them. Right now that’s email.

  23. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    Companies are also using potential employee Fico scores. Having a high score is seen as advantageous for those people working in finance. What is strange about that is that many people working in finance are over leveraged and in debt.

  24. Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot
    Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot says:

    I used to keep my kid’s names private but decided it was a waste of time. I asked them if they minded me putting personal stories about them discussing dodgy things like a desire to read a book about girls going through puberty (it’s a boy) online and they said no. They think it’s hilarious and love being online. I should make them sign something. Haha:)

  25. Diane
    Diane says:

    Regarding e-mail – there are some things that I WANT to be a one-to-one conversation. There are some thoughts I share only with my best friend. One of the reasons I consider her such a good friend is because I CAN share anything with her, with a level of comfort that I would never feel with acquaintances or more distant friends.

  26. Dave
    Dave says:

    I wonder if you talk to corporations and legal departments using social media. I like those tools too, but to think they will replace e-mail is ludicrous.

  27. Carlos Cintron
    Carlos Cintron says:

    There are several ways you can look at it but email I still believe has a long way to go.
    Google Buzz’s new feature is giving real time results while a person is still typing. I guess they are trying to out do twitter, maybe!
    Who knows? It’s far from over, that’s for sure.

  28. Anthony
    Anthony says:

    One thing that has always bothered me with GMail is the ads you see on the top of your mails. They are targetted using the contents of your messages… talk about privacy!
    Now, with social networks continuously expanding and Google trying to do something different with Wave, it seems clear that some people out there are trying to find a replacement for traditional e-mails. Just see how now people organize their parties through Facebook.
    Maybe e-mails will soon be used only for professional or highly confidential purposes. I don’t see them disappear any soon, anyway.

  29. techxinsider
    techxinsider says:

    Email will never go away nor will it ever be replaced by social networking as a primary means of communication for both ideas and execution of those ideas. Social networks is mainly for entertainment these days, and I don’t see it replacing any serious forms of communication when it comes to coming up with real ideas that solve problems or creates new solutions.

  30. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    Yes! I agree completely! Over the past few months, I’ve been intentionally trying to pare down on the number of e-mails I send out. I much prefer Facebook, Twitter, or texting when I want to connect with friends and colleagues.

  31. The Gourmez
    The Gourmez says:

    Recently, someone asked during an in-person, group meeting what would be the best way to send an announcement out about some changes to the group so that everyone would respond? I said, and most others did, too, that sending an e-mail was the way to go over posting an announcement to the site itself. We use(d) Ning to run the group, but unless I know an event is coming up through e-mail, I never check the site. If it’s important and you want people to pay attention, then I think e-mail is still the best option out there. I don’t stay on top of my twitter or facebook streams–it’s impossible to do so and ever get anything else done. Heck, for my upcoming birthday party, my husband was sure that an event on Facebook would do the trick to notify people, until I reminded him that not everyone out there uses Facebook. We sent an e-mail with details also, and I’ve got a number more people coming because of it.

  32. Minnie
    Minnie says:

    Social networks are fine for those who enjoy them. I, on the other hand, am not inclined to communicate to the masses nor to receive communication in that manner.

  33. Rick
    Rick says:

    Very thought-provoking post…

    I’m not seeing the end of email (at least not from the daily spam count!). I am seeing an increase in personal communications through social networking, especially Facebook and Twitter (and LinkedIn for business); however, the “glue” that cements these back to us is good ole, asynchronous email, which lets us know when someone has posted something for us to go comment on or see.

    I think what we’re seeing is things “balancing out”. Email’s not going anywhere anytime soon IMHO.
    Rick

  34. Shaun
    Shaun says:

    According to my 15 yr old, email is dead! But I think it does have value particularly in the workplace when used in the right way…Just wrote a couple of pieces on email/text vs. human interaction in the workplace (http://ow.ly/1IhBG)…Does it get worse with social media?

  35. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    Penelope, I like this blog, but seriously, where are the posts? You can’t post less than once a week and expect your audience to be loyal.

  36. Robert Weglewski /Chia Seeds
    Robert Weglewski /Chia Seeds says:

    I am in complete agreement about the e-mail becoming more of a chore than a tool. The next big problem is which social media is the right one for the task at hand. Facebook is ahead for now but by next week there will be six more to choose from! How will we stay “connected” going every different direction. I can’t keep up with all the changes. One other point about the social networks is our next generations are losing the ability to communicate one on one, face to face. The phone is becoming more important than the person standing in front of the individual who they are talking to when the phone rings! Robert Weglewski
    Chia Seeds

  37. Kaye Swain
    Kaye Swain says:

    Thank you for an interesting and informative article. I have to admit though, I have to disagree. I’ve been involved in technology for years – we bought our first computer a year after they came out; our first Mac a year after they came out. I love tech, I love social media, but I also love email.

    Social media is good, and useful, but it can also be noisy. As one of the hate-to-admit-to-aging members of the Baby Boomers Generation, multi-tasking is getting a bit tougher, but social media requires a LOT of multi-tasking.

    I love the progress I’ve seen over the past 20 years, but there are times when the best progress is a bit of going backwards. I love Twitter but it’s too easy to miss things. Same with Facebook. Even my email gets too many, yet I can search it the easiest of all. And for the senior relatives in my family who are connected, it’s the easiest way to keep in touch with them, other than by cell phone. Even there, we sometimes have to take a step back. I love my AT&T iPhone, but the Jitterbug cell phones for senior citizens works the best for my senior mom, simply because it is so simple.

    Ahhh, but here’s something that will please you. My senior mom is one of those who loves snail mail. She regularly writes to several members of the family from the very young to the very old. I, on the other hand, hope never to have to go that far backwards. I love my typing too much.

  38. starfury
    starfury says:

    Yeah, it’s all fun ‘n games until you get a stalker, or someone steals your identity and empties your bank account. Try restoring your good name and credit when someone keeps opening new accounts in your name and taking out loans month after month, year after year. It’s been done.

  39. John
    John says:

    I have to agree with Tim… Brave New World, here we come! And, what Orwell didn’t predict correctly, we did it to ourselves!

    There is no “Big Brother” watching over us: we are more than happy to monitor each other, and post every mundane detail of our lives.

    This is turning into a “Borg” kind of thing… and, I will freely admit, I find it quite terrifying. I read an article about teenagers and technology… a new phone-app that shows your friends where you are physically at, on a map on their phone screen, at any given time. The girl who was interviewed said she didn’t really want to have this tracking feature on her phone, but that her “friends” would think she “had something to hide” if she didn’t let them see where she was.

    Disturbing? It is to me.

    We are doing it to ourselves. We are both the victims and the creators of Big Brother.

    So, to make this more relevant to the post: I’ll still use email.

  40. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    More food for thought regarding the present state of email by various providers and the announcement of Facebook Messages (integrated communications – email, chat, & IM ) – http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/16/technology/16facebook.html .
    I think the real strength of email and the reason it will survive is the fact it runs on Internet standard protocols such as POP and IMAP which include web-based email services.

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