Is e-mail dead?

It’s generally accepted that the email system we have today was invented by a person named Ray Tomlinson in 1971. He sent an electronic message over an early version of the internet called ARPANET. He was also the first person to use the “name@site.com” format for sending mail.

For a 50-year-old system, email works quite well. It works better than most systems created in 1971, but that’s not saying much I suppose. Technology has gotten about a million times more complex since those days.

It’s not dead, but should it be?

A lot of folks still use e-mail even in their personal lives. Younger generations have embraced the various messenging apps, but the e-mail habit is a hard one to break for those of us who have been using it for 25 years or more. Yes, it’s easier to have a real conversation over text or some other messenger, but there’s something about e-mail that encourages writing a little longer messages. That sort of more formal communication is comforting to some of us.

The problem of course with e-mail is that it’s not just used for personal communication. It’s used for a lot of solicitations we don’t want. We get spam messages, newsletters we forgot we signed up for, and all sorts of “junk” e-mails. If your e-mail address is found somewhere on a public web page, the problem is twice as bad at the very least.

Spam e-mails aren’t the problem that they were a decade ago, thanks largely to a lot of hard work from big players like Google and Microsoft. Google’s spam filter is almost miraculously good, and the company goes after the really bad spammers with a suite of tools that keeps the worst of the worst out of our inboxes. If your business uses G Suite or Microsoft 365, those tools are at work for you, too. But if your office still uses its own email server, you’re probably still seeing a lot of junk.

E-mail in the office

Although office users have their own messenger apps like Slack and Teams, e-mail is still more common in work settings than it is in home settings. E-mail is more permanent and allows for longer messages and attachments. It’s also a better option than a long meeting. As many of us figured out in the last two years, a lot of in-person meetings really didn’t need to happen.

But, e-mail in the office is also fraught with problems. Without friendly emoji and other ways of expressing emotions, e-mails can seem sterile or be misinterpreted. You can argue that office messenging apps are improving by leaps and bounds, and that it’s a better way to communicate anyway.

E-mail may never go away, but it could fade away

If you work at a company that has been around for 25 years or more, somewhere in your office is a fax machine. It may even still work. No one would know since no one uses it. When did you last send a fax? If it’s like me, the answer is, 5 years or more. There are a few industries that still cling to faxes, but every year there are fewer and fewer.

I think e-mail will be like that. It will continue to be a presence for a while, and then it people will use it sparingly as other alternatives get better. Eventually a while will go by between you getting an e-mail you care about, and eventually you’ll realize that you just don’t use it at all. Like that old fax machine, it will never be far out of reach, but you’ll increasingly use more important methods of communication.

Personally I can’t wait. E-mail works well right now for communications between companies, but I use messenger apps for everything else. And increasingly, I’m getting business communications that way too. Honestly, that’s as it should be.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.