Karlin Lillington: Reports of email’s death are greatly exaggerated, yet again

People have sounded the death knell for email for years, and they’ve been wrong every time

Yet again, the death of email is being greatly exaggerated. This time round, it was a few tech executives at Davos offering the view that email’s time was up, mainly because Generation Z says so (or messages so).

All of this was widely reported, of course. I did a little searching, and quickly found an article in online magazine Slate with the brusque warning that “e-mail is looking obsolete”. It gave lots of evidence. For example, US colleges and universities are facing a communications headache as students increasingly ignore campus announcements sent by email (exactly what the Davos guys were saying about internal corporate communications).

The article notes: “Colleges have already thrown up their hands and created Facebook and MySpace pages to stay in touch with students.”

Oops! Did I forget to tell you that this was an article from 2007? Yes, friends, 15 years ago Slate had this scoop, headlined “The Death of E-Mail” (it was about to vanish, yet was new enough that publications still had no agreed style format for announcing its impending doom).


Suggestions for replacements included, yet again, messaging: DMs on Twitter or messages on Facebook. Oh dear

Well, all I can say now is: thank goodness we had an immortal communications solution right there in MySpace, ready to save the day when we needed an answer to email’s demise. I am sure you, too – alongside all of the academic and corporate world – continue to utilise your MySpace account for all your communications needs, because no doubt you could see the email writing on the (Facebook) wall back in 2007.

According to Inc.com, the inbox irritant was to be done and dusted by 2020 at the latest, stated a 2015 article. “Stick a fork in your email – within five years, something else is going to replace it,” the subheading boldly proclaimed. Suggestions for replacements included, yet again, messaging: DMs on Twitter or messages on Facebook. Oh, dear.

And there’s more. Noting this prediction was entirely realistic because of how swiftly technology has been moving along, the writer also noted, “In terms of car technology, just five years ago, the idea of a car driving itself on the highway was a distant dream. Tesla will probably make it a reality this summer.” I suppose that all depends on how you define “reality”.

In fact, just about any year you choose in the past decade and a half will present some article arguing that the death of email is nigh. It will note how fewer and fewer younger people use it and the problems campuses and academics have in reaching students. It will mention that only around a third of Gen Z now says they “rely” on email for communication. But who “relies” on email anyway? Most of us have long been using a range of communications technologies, from SMS to stand-alone chat apps to messaging integrated in larger platforms. (Remember AIM, anyone? Or for that matter, messaging in, yes, MySpace?)

Shifts across communications technologies is nothing new. I’m fusty enough to remember how the first answering machines meant you didn’t actually have to talk to someone to get or receive a message. Lots of us quickly copped on that you could just . . . not answer (or “pick up2, as in an actual physical receiver – the talking bit, for any youngsters out there – of an actual landline phone. Funny how the phrase continues for a nearly obsolete item).

You could also sneakily leave a recorded message or voicemail by dialling (yes, another anachronism) 5 before the number. That way, you avoided actually having the number ring, but could leave your message. Email and messaging services of various sorts became further variations on avoiding letters, handwritten notes on Post-Its, and live calls.

Email has the simple, critical, cost-effective, egalitarian advantage of working on a common, open protocol

Email is easily the worst method to use for short chats of whatever sort, but retains its usefulness for longer or more formal communications, and tends to be much more easily searched and managed than messaging apps.

But regularly forgotten by pundits is this one huge thing: that email also has the simple, critical, cost-effective, egalitarian advantage of working on a common, open protocol. Corporations, while they might offer a free or paid-for email service (eg GMail), do not ‘own’ email. Unlike a Twitter DM, or a WhatsApp or Messenger or Slack message, email sent from a Gmail, Protonmail or Eircom account will arrive in your email inbox, anywhere. Emails sent by you will land with recipients on any email service. No stamps, no paid accounts required – something that baffled my mother when my father and I both had university email addresses in the 1980s. She couldn’t understand how you didn’t have to pay to send each message. Thank you, you early internet pioneers, for gifting us email.

Sure, we might eventually get an alternative to email, but I doubt that anything except a similarly open protocol-based service will win out. For now, the simple power of a truly open protocol – one that has already outlasted any number of private platforms and messaging services – means email isn’t going away any time soon.