Coming of Age in the Era of Email

11/07/2016 12:47 pm ET
Len Shneyder, Vietnam, 2012

Fact: today’s college graduates will never have listened to music on a cassette tape. Fact: tomorrow’s college graduates may have only watched a handful of movies on a VHS player (and forget about Betamax or laser disc). Fact: classrooms have rapidly digitized and school systems are constantly adapting to new technologies to engage students who would otherwise find education stale, outdated, and perhaps, unnecessary. Fact: today’s high school and college graduates are growing up with more communication options than ever before. These options include Snapchat, Viber, Trello, Periscope, and WhatsApp, while a few have fallen by the wayside like Vine and Meerkat. The rapid experimentation and adoption of new communication modalities is awe inspiring and a bit frightening when you pause and consider what it means for marketers.

Change in communication styles has prompted some to issue a eulogy for email. Others have become apologists and decry the value of the 45 year old stalwart of digital communication and instead seek a world free of email because they’ve turned to highly evolved chat tools like Slack and HipChat. We use the latter in the office and I use the former to communicate with colleagues, friends, and loved ones. Facebook recently announced Workplace; a brilliant move designed to capitalize on the fact that tomorrow’s workers will be more familiar with Facebook and Google Apps than Microsoft Office and Lotus Notes. But, if we stop for a moment and think about the common thread, the one ring that by its nature, evolution, design or just happenstance unifies all of these other mediums, it’s email.

As an email professional, I’ve been kicking around the idea for quite some time that email is part of our maturation process. My theory isn’t scientific, it’s based on simple observation and a conclusion rooted in the fact that global email volume has never contracted; quite the contrary, it’s always growing.

My brother’s five year old sits at the dinner table with a smart phone and either plays a game or watches videos. My nephews knew how to unlock their father’s iPad at a frighteningly young age and launch their favorite games and videos. By the time these kids are old enough to have their own smartphones and tablets they will have created email accounts because the experiences they want to have require a basic identifier: email. And as is both fashionable, practical, and quite common, they’ll have multiple accounts, two on average but many more if they’re in the startup world. Multiple accounts help create delineations between personal and public (read business), and they’re a decoy to help curb spam.

That’s right, our digital identity is predicated on email. When’s the last time you tried to log into a Slack team? Did you notice the option to send a magic link via email? The utility of email is hard to dismiss given that you need an email address to access social media, make online purchases, or even download music. There are tools that enable you to change the offer in an email based on thresholds and time periods; media queries have turned an already portable message format into a uniquely potent one by creating unique rendering experiences on a device by device basis.

I’m probably getting ahead of myself or plummeting a technical rabbit hole; let’s focus on my nieces and nephews. Once they hit high school (or perhaps middle school) they will be immersed in digital classrooms like Blackboard, iTALIC, Edmondo, and more. They will learn the value of longer form writing, threads, chat, and other tools that simultaneously mimic a physical classroom, chat, collaboration technology, and social media. The digital stew of today’s rapidly digitizing classrooms gives way to more potent forms as they will reach college and eventually, the workplace.

By the time they have their first jobs, they will have applied for college using an online form (vs. the paper ones we had to fill out back in my day), opened a .edu email account (and probably lamented that it wasn’t Gmail, or perhaps not), used a cloud-based word processor to write a term paper, interacted with their professors and classmates via email and social media, and have been socialized in what will be their life if they should enter an office-driven workplace.

These children who I watch play games and watch movies on their parents’ phones today will one day mature—and you can infer whether that maturation is forced or natural—into avid users of email as they hit the workplace. Business email is projected to grow at a very healthy 3% a year through 2019, while consumer email will grow at nearly double that! My niece and nephew will join the world of email users because that’s what their company will run on. When they apply for their first job, it’ll be through LinkedIn or CareerBuilder and they’ll receive a calendar invite to their personal email for a phone screening. Email is how they will enter adulthood. It’s a rite of passage because of its inherent universality, utility, openness and portability.

The fact that I live and breathe email doesn’t mean I abhor all other forms of communication; quite the contrary. I don’t know what I’d do without the aforementioned Slack, HipChat, Skype, Facebook Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, iMessage, and more. Communication has long been multimodal by taking the shape of linguistic, aural, visual, and spatial forms of discourse and information representation.

The Internet and the numerous apps and means of communicating and collaborating is similarly multimodal. Understanding the interplay between these various modalities is the real key: do we use Twitter simply to vent our frustration with cable companies and airlines? Is Facebook private and meant for multiple levels and rings of friends? Is email a simultaneous receipt drawer and work repository where our bosses can praise and lambast us while Amazon fills our free mail accounts with shipping notifications that trigger dopamine responses because something is on its way!?

It’s all of the above.

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