Will email disappear because of Facebook?


Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg suggested that social media will eventually make email obsolete at a recent Consumer 360 Conference in Las Vegas. Sheryl states, "In consumer technology, if you want to know what people like us will do tomorrow, you look at what teenagers are doing today, and the latest figures say that only 11% of teenagers email daily. So email (I can't imagine life without it) is probably going away. So what do teenagers do? They SMS and increasingly they use social networking."

I completely understand why Sheryl has made such a bold claim. For one, she's pushing an application of Facebook, letting people know that they can communicate just as well via Facebook as they would via email. Yet, whilst I agree Facebook and social media have improved the 'web experience' and understand that in some circumstances Facebook is a superior communication channel, it's not about to force email out of the equation.

Has Sheryl really thought this through?

Sheryl seems to have missed out a vital stage in preparing for her presentation, and that is, data interpretation. To me, it sounds as though she's been given the facts and figures and has forgotten to actually think about what that data means, why it may be skewed and why social media is unlikely to replace email. She even says that she can't imagine life without email, but continues with her argument regardless.

Why don't teenagers use email often?

You see, teenagers spend large amounts of time in their peer groups. Going to school 5 days a week and then socialising on the weekends means that on the most part, they don't need to be emailing to keep in touch - they're seeing their would-be contacts most days. I'm sure that on the odd occasion, they'll email each other (or other people outside of their peer group) but the figure of 11% which Sheryl refers to corresponds to the number of teenagers that email daily - of course this figure is going to be low!

In response to her other point, teenagers use SMS as they know that their mates are likely to respond instantly - as young people always seem to have their mobile phones with them. Were they to send an email, they could be waiting a few days before their mate logs in, reads and responds to it. In all honesty, they'd probably be better just waiting to speak to their mate at school or college the following day.

What attracts teenagers to social media platforms such as Facebook?

Social networking is extremely popular amongst young people but whilst Sheryl seems to take this as a sign that email could be 'on the way out', I take another view. Teenagers are attracted to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter because everyone else is doing it, they don't want to miss out and also, it gives them an opportunity to share rich media such as photographs and videos of nights out. It's not a serious communication channel, and I think that's particularly important.

For many teenagers, there is no requirement to use email - but that does change with age

As teenagers get older, moving from high school to university for example, they'll start to use email more and more. Every university student gets given a university email account, which they'll be expected to use when communicating with lecturers and departments. Of course, many will continue using Facebook alongside it, but each platform has a very specific purpose.

When moving from university or college into the workplace, young people will be assigned an email address and will be expected to use it as a means of communicating with suppliers, clients and colleagues. Emails are usually branded with a logo, company number and the registered office address, and are recognised as an official communication channel. The world of business is unlikely to ever resort to Facebook in place of email.

So, to sum up, it's highly unlikely that email will die out as a result of social media. Whilst we can look to teenagers for an idea of how our future will be for many things, we cannot interpret their use of social media and SMS to signify the end of email. Many of them aren't employed on a full time basis, and have not been given the responsibility to look after a 'serious' email account. Once they move into the world of work, they'll be emailing just as much as the rest of us!

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