So recently, we said goodbye to Ray Tomlinson, the man who took the hither-to little-used ‘@’ symbol and put it at the heart of modern communications. In any single email I send, there are at least four of the little curly characters: my email, the recipient’s email, and both my Twitter handles (follow @SillyMrHawkins for politics and humour, and @SmartMrHawkins for all things business. It’s just like this blog, but mercifully shorter). Released from the greengrocers’ chalkboards, the @ has become an integral part of all our lives, hunting it out being one of the first tasks when typing on an unfamiliar keyboard.
Just as changes roll into language, they roll out again, much like technology. Where language and technology meet, you have a dynamic mix. This blog makes occasional bold predictions that I hope I won’t be held accountable for, and here comes another one: I think the days of email may be numbered.
Email has always suffered a bit from not quite knowing how formal it is supposed to be. If a client orders, say, a million pounds worth of stuff, how well do you have to know that client for the email to be sufficient say-so? You wouldn’t (hopefully) propose marriage or end a relationship by email. You wouldn’t want the nuclear button to be pushed on the strength of an email. Yet we’ve all been on the receiving end of someone huffily asking, ‘Didn’t you get my email?’ And many of us have hit ‘reply all’ by accident, drunkenness or passive-aggression.
Chatting with a friend the other day, she told me that it’s not uncommon for her to get five hundred emails in a day. Presumably some of them are actual work rather than startlingly attractive Russians looking for marriage (and viagra discounts should you take them up on their offer) and isn’t this the problem? Email has become too public. An email from my grandmother that I do want to read takes up the same amount of space as an email from that client newsletter I don’t quite have the courage to unsubscribe from.
When we organise a party, a Facebook group is a far more sensible place to put the information. The space limitation in Twitter’s direct messages avoid the obligation to be superficially polite – whilst avoiding being considered sincerely rude. Job hunters don’t need to send out their CV as an attachment; if they are job hunting on LinkedIn, the employer is already looking at it.
The trouble with email is that the space is limitless, the number of emails we (or rather a computer) can send is limitless. The human attention span and the hours in the day are strictly limited and are not changing any time soon. The genius (and attraction) of Twitter is that less really is more. The holiday photos make more sense on a Facebook timeline or Instagram account (even the Pope is onto that one) and if you want to hear a voice, podcast or song, you’d never email it in a world where SoundCloud exists.
We are going to enter a world of differentiation. I hope my business clients find the @SmartMrHawkins tweets fascinating and insightful, but I don’t mind if they stray into the less professional world of @SillyMrHawkins‘s tedious puns and naïve political ranting. I understand the difference, and I hope most clients do too: they’d better, because the younger end of the workforce have the pics from their drunken nights up on Facebook in perpetuity and if you consider cutting loose at the weekend a good reason not to employ someone, you will find your talent pool is going to be severely limited. When Facebook started insisting that people used their real names, it caused a huff among the performing community (some of whom have built a career out of being called things like The Incredible Singing Dinosaur or Presuming Frank), and some serious disquiet among those with sensible jobs during the week and a penchant for, say, dressing like a goldfish and getting ‘into’ the ‘tank’ ‘scene’ of a Saturday night – and then sharing the pics with fellow ‘AquaFolk’ online.*
I already have email accounts I don’t use: a spare Gmail for account recovery when I have to change the password on my Live account. Gmail also gets me into a couple of other places that are easier with Google than Live. But for sociable chit chat, coffee dates with friends and the like, there are messengers and fora that do the job better.
I still send photos and scripts via email, but I’m beginning to wonder if that isn’t rather inefficient. How many times have I been working on a document with someone and we get confused over whether this is version 3.2 or 4.1 that we are working from now? I don’t need to send them the document, I just need to send them the link to the document up on the cloud, and we can update it on a shared space rather than taking a meaningless ownership of it.
I have entire groups of friends on Facebook whom I have never met in real life. Facebook for me is taking the experience of saying ‘hi’ in the school corridor and putting it on a computer. Facebook is where I’ve mourned passed friends, swapped jokes and told people I love them. I’ve been offered work through LinkedIn and sold my book through Twitter. I’m about to fly to Australia, and have put a couple of gigs and workshops in the diary via social media contacts. It hasn’t crossed my mind to bother the email inbox with these arrangements.
Suddenly, my grandmother sending me an email feels terribly old fashioned.
* have I just invented a new fetish? Someone please get in touch and tell me I haven’t.