The end of email?

As I get a little more fluent with (ok, addicted to) Web 2.0, I’m having an Aha! moment.  I believe email is, very soon, going to be all but obsolete. 

Remember the early days, when it was very exciting to get a message — any message — at all?  “You’ve Got Mail!” said the cute little AOL alert.  It actually spoke out loud every time you got an email! Someone loved you!  People actually paid to use email, though I didn’t; I canceled my AOL account at the end of my free 30-day trial period. Other than the person I lived with, no one was emailing me anyway.
[A long aside: It was sometime during this period — probably 1996 — when I was at a Silicon Valley cocktail party (such things were just beginning to happen). I worked for the soon-to-be-rebranded “newspaper of Silicon Valley” and I started chatting with a guy who had just started a company to give people free email accounts. He gave me his business card so I could check it out for myself. 
Once home, I emptied out my purse and looked at the card: Sabeer Bhatia.  Hmm, well, I already had a free email account at work. I threw the card out. 
Years later, at some point when I had not one but three Hotmail accounts, I regretted that I hadn’t immediately offered to invest half of my paltry income in his startup. I tell this story so that you, dear reader, know to take any technology predictions posted here with a few googol grains of salt.]
Anyway, that sweet phase of email-as-fun-and-love lasted about a minute, and was quickly followed by the horror years.  All of us, but especially those of us in the news and information business, were virtually buried under piles of email, unsorted and unmanaged — the wanted and the unwanted, the trivial and the serious, the personal and the impersonal, friend and foe all arriving together by the dozens, the hundreds, the thousands. A daily, Sisyphean chore.
Many of us still live there. For me, it was so terribly distracting and unmanageable that for a couple of years as I was writing my book, I actually got rid of my home internet service.  This backward step was incredibly liberating and allowed me to seize control of my inbox again. Here’s how I did it, in case anyone out there wants to stage a personal Luddite rebellion and try it:
  • I literally unplugged (and stopped paying for) Internet service in my apartment, and instead bought a $55 wireless card for my laptop (of course, now they come installed).  I didn’t have a wireless network at my house, so presto, no internet at home. 
  • I automated my accounts to alert anyone who sent me a message that I was checking email once a week or less, and to call me if the matter was urgent. (No, I didn’t put my phone number in the outgoing message; I figured if they didn’t already know me well enough to have it, how urgent could it be?)  My lovely friends and family quickly learned to call instead of email if they wanted to reach me.
  • I got off most of my group lists, and kept the ones I wanted on a digest-only or read-online-only basis, so that they didn’t exceed my inbox capacity.  
  • Using an online guide like this one, I scoped out places with a pleasant environment and free internet. San Francisco’s public libraries and the Cole Valley Cafe became favorites.
  • Throughout the week, I would jot down (on paper!) a list of tasks I needed to conduct online.
  • Once a week or so, I would go to one of my spots, have a mocha, and spend a very efficient hour or two online. I quickly learned to skim and delete, and I enjoyed the satisfaction of checking items off my (paper!) list. 
It was lovely.
Ultimately, of course, that modus operandi worked wonderfully for a writer needing to produce a big work in solitude and concentration — but it’s not so great for a writer/performer with a book coming out into the world.  Now that I’m living large online again, I find that things have changed, dramatically, for the better.  
Now, for all but a few tasks, I’m finding that the new tools are so much better than email. And the techie geniuses out there seem ever-more devoted to making these tools really easy for a fuzzy like me.  (My college classmates will recognize the techie v. fuzzy distinction.)
So here’s what I’m using right now: 

  • Google docs, for sharing documents for client work and review by multiple editors. No more “I couldn’t open the attachment!”
  • Groups (Yahoo, Google, etc) and forum/bulletin board posting functions for creative drafts, documents within a virtual community.
  • Facebook and LinkedIn for staying in touch with extended personal and professional network, as well as introducing people to each other. No more “So what have you been up to lately?” emails.
  • This blog (powered by WordPress) for incremental progress reports and random creative spurts. I also like that blogging is totally consensual; I don’t have to worry about irritating people by sending them too many emails about trivial updates, or decide which friends would really be interested in which of my various book updates and pithy observations. 
  • Gmail chat and Facebook chat for quick hits, arranging meeting times, logistics, flirting, quick one-on-one catching up with friends. I particularly love how Chat eliminates the long strings of emails saying “I don’t know if I can meet at 6. Does 6:30 work for you? / OK, but can we meet near my work then? There’s a Thai place. / No, I don’t really feel like Thai. / Cuban, then? / etc.”  One quick chat, and it’s all settled!  It’s so easy that, during my recent bout with bronchitis/laryngitis when I couldn’t talk on the phone for days and days, I even persuaded the recalcitrant and tech-averse Daddi G to g-chat with me.  Hoorah!
  • Gmail video chat and Skype for virtual conversation.  On Google video, I did an interview with a magazine reporter based in New York who wanted to look at my family photographs as part of her interview.  In theory I could use Skype to chat with my family all over the world, though I haven’t yet used it much.
  • Designated private chat rooms for topic discussion, such as for an online writing class I’m currently taking.
  • Evite to invite people to events and respond to invitations. Facebook also has useful event and group tools, so I’m doing more of my inviting and social/writerly event coordination there instead.
  • And of course, my trusty little Helio Fin cell phone, where I can access all of this at anytime, even though it’s not a superduper smartypants crackberry or iphone.
Sometimes it feels like the only reason I still use email anymore is that not everyone in my life is using these tools. Or people are using different tools than I am; if you’re on MySpace and I’m on LinkedIn, we probab
ly still need email to connect online.   But it seems like our techie friends are working fiercely on integration. Already I can, for example, feed this blog into my Facebook page with ease. I also like the integration across my various gadgets such as the phone, laptop, and iPod (I believe these are called “platforms,” but that makes me think of Vegas shoes).  
And I realize I’m just scratching the surface — I don’t use Twitter, MySpace, SecondLife, etc. Still, at my decidedly fuzzy level, I’m finding two clear benefits of all this interactivity:
  1. My email inbox is more under control than ever.  This is also because of the genius of gmail, and my friend Patty’s advice on how to use it.  Now, at any given time, my actual inbox has fewer than a dozen items. Everything else is neatly sorted (filtered) away into folders, searchable and available to me at any time, but not screaming for attention.
  2. The time I spend online is not reduced, but it is more fun, less tedious.  I hang out on Facebook way too much, not because I have thousands of pesky chores piled up waiting for me to decide or act or delete or just read — but because I like to.   I could stop anytime (really, I could!) without that horrible feeling of being behind and overwhelmed.  
So, how about you?  Are you ready to attend the end-of-email celebration/wake? 
I’ll set up the evite.