My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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what i mean when i say “email is dead” in reference to teens

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.

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21 comments to what i mean when i say “email is dead” in reference to teens

  • Coco

    What do you think about the argument that when these teens grow up and join the work force, they’ll start to use email more often, simply because at that point, they need more than a tool to “socialize”?

  • Thanks for posting that, danah — I’ve been observing this dynamic among teens and young 20s people too, and you put it REALLY well. There’s been a number of recent studies that clearly show this trend — including some private research that I’ve been conducting for my clients. It’s a big AHA for those of us that are addicted to email.

  • thanks zephoria, great one. the part about the homework is totally true, and made me laugh.

    im an in-betweener too. :) and really liking the trend towards (practically) seamless integration between IM and email. very handy for project teams.

    what I need is a social site ‘aggregator’ of sorts. to turn all my sad neglected profile pages into one seemingly ok ‘social space’. as if that’ll ever happen. bah! these gosh darn teens. >8)

  • I, for one, have always used email as a means of communicating. It is more of a convenience, for the recipient, than anything else. I sometimes ignore phone calls, even if I know they are important. Simply because, they interfere with what I may be doing at that present time. Email, on the other hand, sits there and waits for you. Having a Blackberry makes it even easier I can read email and reply on the go, in my own time. That being said, sometimes with email statements, they are read in a completely different context than the writer attempted to convey. Anger can be found easily in text when one is looking for it, regardless of its actual presence.
    I believe teens are using text messaging instead of email. The cell phones of today take the place of your Ipod, GPS, and Palm pilot all in one. It also lends a rather cool factor to have the newest and trendiest phone hanging from your side. Remember when cool cases were the rage for your Nokia phone? Now it seems to be, “What can your phone do that my phone cannot?”.

  • Alex

    As a teen (junior in high school), I can 100% confirm this. The only emails I get are Myspace, Facebook, and LiveJournal notifications, mailing list digests, and VERY occasionally emails with songs (or something similar) attached.
    I do have a couple friends that don’t use Myspace or Facebook and they email me every once in a while, but it’s very rare.
    So.. You’re 100% correct. No personal emails anymore.

  • This is a very good point that I hadn’t thought of in this context before. As a 19 year old, I feel as if I stand somewhere in the middle as well, though IM has been around for me. I feel the divide for my generation comes into play when I examine what I use each one for. My college email account is a necessary part of my life, and without it, I’d go crazy wondering what is going on in my classes, what the updates around campus are, ect… it is crucial to my socialization here. Yet, I feel more passionately about IM and yet, academically, I’d be fine without it, maybe even better off, because it a mode of leisure communication, while email is a mode of business communication.

    Great entry. Very thought provoking.

  • My post re: a conversation with three USC freshman – a couple and their buddy – reflects the adolescent psychological changes going on in society. This instant gratification/no cost/no holds bar attitude is disturbing on one level. On another, it fuels our technological change in creating markets. So what will be in the middle?

  • Yes you are so right… so right.

    Email, IM, and texting serve different purposes/usage-patterns, and such patterns differ within age groups as well.

    You are awesome; I enjoy reading your blog very much…

    ceo

  • I’m a teen, my fellow teenagers above have pretty much covered our perspective spot-on, so I’m just stopping by to say that these are some very astute points and I’m always glad to hear someone older understanding properly–it’s not always the case, not even for people in important social-networking management frames of reference sometimes…

    Anyhow, great blog of yours I just discovered–I’ll be reading!

  • Hey Danah,

    Thanks for this insight. I too am an inbetweener… and really depise email. Most of my friends, though, especially the older ones still use it mostly to communicate and make plans. They are gitty at the fact that their mobile devices can now support their email habits… and are slowly converging to using text. BUT, email in large remains the primary method.

    To me… it feels too formal. The metaphor of a note or letter, doesn’t seem to fit most of what we do to communicate anymore.

    It’s quick messages… short phrases, but more often. I feel lucky that Im at least on the cusp of understanding this new communication trend. I wish more decision makers were.

    a.

  • email may also be losing its grip among professionals. IM is a vital means of communication for one forward-looking computer book publishing company I do work for.

    I think spam has destroyed email. Without spam, email could be an accessory to IM — you’d use email for more serious, longer, more personal and intimate communications with your friends. Like the old days of snailmail penpals.

    That’s completely impossible when 95% of the messages in your inbox are spam. And if you enable filters, sometimes very important messages from your friends or business associates get labelled as spam and filtered out.

    I was at the Web 2.0 Summit, and there the WordPress blog leader said that just in the past 3 weeks the amount of spam getting past WordPress’s filters had doubled. And in a technology email I saw an article titled “the spammers strike back”…

    It’s no wonder today’s younger people don’t want to use email. When email first started, it was as reliable as IM with respect to messages coming in only from people with whom you have an existing relationship.

    No doubt, spammers are working on methods to destroy IM, just as they’ve already made great “progress” with filling MySpace with spam and scam messages and invitations.

  • I’ve looked at the comments above mine and some are from people around my age, 16. I do have lots of friends who only use myspace/facebook/IM now. However, I use email a lot. I use it to email my 23-year old brother, I use it for asking questions to teachers, I use it to communicate with people who I work with at school.. I guess I’m in the minority on this one though!

    By the way, why is there a place to put my email address but not my IM screen name/myspace address when I want to write a comment on your blog? :)

    And great blog, I love reading it.

  • I know of people in professional settings who use IM a lot, but email comes in use for sending attachments, more formal communication, and (duh) when other people are not online.

    You say “Do they use it as their primary form of asynchronous communication for talking with their friends?”
    But isn’t IM by definition ‘synchronous’ communication? So you have to consider what are the alternatives to email as an asynchronous method of communication. SMS is one too of course, but it costs money and is a bit more of a hassle to send longer notes.

    It seems to me that there’ll always be a role for both forms of communication; though as I read someone somewhere suggesting, younger people are more often using their MySpace (or whatever) account as a kind of online ‘mailbox’.

  • lindax

    my 12 yo kid uses email as her personal db. it is a chronologically organized, but sortable, filing system. she checks it about 2-3 times a week, especially if she knows someone sent her a link or something.

  • PEACE.

    I’ve been around the Sun some thirty three times and have just recently discovered the power of IM.

    It offers the flexibility and opportunity for conversational “tuning” where adjustments for miscommunication can be achieved quickly.

    It provides an artifact if you keep a session open indefinitely or archive conversations–great for business correspondence.

    Plus, on many clients you can send files, start voice and video applications, etc.

    My initial resistance to IM was that I thought people would be constantly attempting to engage me in conversation–something like a Junior High lunchroom. I visited a friend and he had like twenty IM windows open at once (I thought he was crazy.) I was not aware of the common practice of just ignoring pings until a more appropriate time. It’s not like talking, where it would be rude to just disengage in the middle of someone’s sentence. There seems to be a social contract already in place for managing IM.

    IM is fresh…I still have a crush on email :)

    Life is good.

  • PEACE.

    I’ve been around the Sun some thirty three times and have just recently discovered the power of IM.

    It offers the flexibility and opportunity for conversational “tuning” where adjustments for miscommunication can be achieved quickly.

    It provides an artifact if you keep a session open indefinitely or archive conversations–great for business correspondence.

    Plus, on many clients you can send files, start voice and video applications, etc.

    My initial resistance to IM was that I thought people would be constantly attempting to engage me in conversation–something like a Junior High lunchroom. I visited a friend and he had like twenty IM windows open at once (I thought he was crazy.) I was not aware of the common practice of just ignoring pings until a more appropriate time. It’s not like talking, where it would be rude to just disengage in the middle of someone’s sentence. There seems to be a social contract already in place for managing IM.

    IM is fresh…I still have a crush on email :)

    Life is good.

  • princeton girl

    hey every1 just want to ask is everyone here a teenager and if u are can sum1 add me i am soooooooo board :(

    saabihabegum1994@hotmail.co.uk

  • If MySpace didn’t cripple their feeds and let me get more through them, I would have far less of a problem with the friends of mine who refuse to communicate through any other medium.

  • technophobe

    I’m in my 20s and I sill write letters (remember those things) to my friends and family. Nothing compares to the thought, love and attention to detail in a letter and tells people you have made the time to communicate with them.

  • Ansuman

    I totally agree. I just interviewed for Microsoft IT today and the guy asked me what the future of the communication technology software could be? I said well social networking of course.. I do check my mail regularly but IM is commoner….

  • This has chilling implications.
    Email is as distributed and free as the internet is. Almost every form of IM that you describe other than Jabber based IM goes through a major corporate network.

    You can’t myspace or AIM chat or MSN chat without your conversation being logged and being subject to the filtering at that corporation’s whims.

    IM handles are also very disposable and evanescent, so we will see more history being lost as chat logs succumb to bitrot.

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