When i was a child, i used to get super excited when the postman came. Although i almost never got anything, those handful of letters from penpals were such joyous gifts. Email was the same at first – even the pyramid schemes and bizarro forwards were a reason to celebrate. “You’ve got mail!” Today, snail mail is full of bills and email is full of spam and expectations. Joy comes through IM or SMS or MySpace. At least for now.
Lately, i’ve gotten into some trouble for saying that email is dead with young people so i wanted to do some clarification.
Do young people have email accounts? Yes. Do they login to them semi-regularly? Yes. Do they use it as their primary form of asynchronous communication for talking with their friends? No.
Academics have been noting that young people’s social and emotional energies have been moving from email to IM. Consider for example Steven Thorne’s 2003 article “Artifacts and Cultures-of-Use in Intercultural Communication.” This article shows a cross-language penpal experiment. Those who used email (as assigned) got very little out of the relationship but a segment of participants switched to IM with their penpal, resulting in a much better connection. In examining this, he finds that this is because IM is the primary site of sociable communication for young people. It is where teens prefer to go to socialize.
Many of you (dear readers) receive your bills via email now. Does this mean that you’ve stopped checking snail mail? No. That said, what kind of emotional attachment do you have towards your mailbox? You probably love when your Netflix disks arrive or when you get that neat package from Amazon, but is snail mail all that exciting now? If you couldn’t check your snail mail for a day or two, would you be emotionally distraught? Most of you probably twitch when you can’t get to your email. Why? There are many more important, interesting, juicy things there that feel timely and important.
Now, let’s talk about youth. They have email accounts. They get homework assignments sent there. Xanga tells them that their friends have updated their pages. Attachments (a.k.a. digital Netflix/Amazon packages) get sent there. Companies try to spam them there (a.k.a. junk mail). Sifting through the crap, they might get a neat penpal letter or a friend might have sent them something to read but, by and large, there’s not a lot of emotional investment over email.
That said, take away their AIM or MySpace or SMS or whatever their primary form of asynchronous messaging with their friends is and they will start twitching and moan about how you’ve ruined their life. And you have. Because you’ve taken away their access to their friends, their access to the thing that matters most to them. It’s like me taking away your access to blogs and email and being forced to stay at the office just because you showed up late for work.
I’m part of the generation caught between email and IM where IM feels more natural but most of the folks just a little older than me refuse to use IM so i’m stuck dealing with email. Today’s teens are stuck between IM, MySpace/Facebook, and SMS. There’s another transition going on which is why there’s no clean one place. IM replaced email for quite a few years but now things are in flux again. Still, no matter what, email is not regaining beloved ground.
Email is not gone but it is dead in the sense that it is no longer a site of deep emotional passion. People still have accounts, just like they still have mailboxes. But their place for sociable communication is elsewhere.