Bye Bye email?

Posted by Nishant Shah at Aug 23, 2011 07:31 AM |
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Email might be the default method of communication for most of us, but could it be going the telegram way.

I grew up with the internet in India. I remember the first time I heard the strange and harsh sounds of a dial-up modem back in 1996 and my friend helping me create an email account. It was my first digital identity online — a name and an address to call my own. Cost of internet access was prohibitive and email time was limited to 15 minutes a day. One logged in, downloaded all the emails and immediately disconnected. After reading through the emails off-line, I would write down the replies to all the mails, go online again, send all the mails and then wait for the next day, so that I could see what was in store for me in my inbox. 

The World Wide Web has changed a lot since those first interactions with email, on black-and-white monitors. Speed, portability, access and costs have changed the nature of the Net, which is slowly becoming ubiquitous. Trends and fashions of social interaction and information exchange have changed drastically. From social media to professional networking, from discussion boards to micro-blogs, from geo-tagged services to mobile phone-based apps, the topography of the internet has undergone drastic revisions. However, the one thing that has remained constant is the email.

Sure, the email in itself has changed in texture and volume. The emailing services from the early days of AOL to the current trends of Gmail and Facebook messages, have been the backbone of Web 2.0. You needed an email as the primary identity to remain connected with social media, blogs, news services and indeed, with other friends and peers using emails. Notification on the email, for me, is still the primary gateway to the many digital worlds that I occupy, including gaming, digital networks, reading lists et al. For most people who grew up with me, email was here forever. 

This faith in the email as the spine of the internet received a rude jolt when I was recently in Mumbai, working with undergraduate students, exploring relationships between digital technologies and social justice. The workshops spanned six days, and looked at how young people from socially and economically disadvantaged classes and communities could use the powers of digital and participatory technologies to effect a change in their environments. Our role as facilitators was to introduce them to new usages of their existing practices and show them the potential for social transformation and civic action in their everyday use of technology. We began, like Maria, in The Sound of Music, at the very beginning — with the email. Which is when the world started unravelling, because, as the participants in the workshop pointed out, email is a thing of the past. 

I was suddenly faced with a group of urban youngsters who are all a part of the digital revolution, using Facebook, writing blogs, searching for information online, and keeping in touch through Voice over IP services and Instant Messenger. Their access is through shared public access in college libraries and cybercafés, and for many, also on their smartphones. They log in regularly into their various social media networks and use them for playing games, sending messages, chatting and updating their statuses. And yet, when it came to using the email, they were noobs, some of them didn’t remember their passwords, some had never sent an email, attachments were things they don’t understand and they logged in to their email only when necessary. 

This behaviour perplexed me because I had always imagined that the otherwise ethereal world of the cyberspace was held together by the strong and dependable emails. But evidently, for the new kids on the block, email is something that belonged to the world before it went mobile. They do not understand the communication patterns that emails are structured around. The narrative expectations, waiting for replies, accessing it via services, archiving information through attachments are things that don’t make sense to this generation that is growing up with cloud computing. They use emails only as the first source of authentication for different services that demand it. And even there, as one of the students said, "You just need email to open your Facebook account. After that, you just F-connect". 

As the interface between mobile phones and the internet strengthens, more and more users seem to be depending on phone-based communication methods. They accept the newer ways of messaging, like IMing, texting. But for digital dinosaurs like me, who were there at the beginning of (digital) time, the world is beginning to look slightly blurred. I shudder to think that in two decades, email might be obsolete because though I complain of information overload, I still cannot imagine what a world without email would look like. 

This article by Nishant Shah was published in the Indian Express on August 21, 2011. The original story can be read here
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