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Unsocial media

"No one under 30 will use email," the convenor objected.

There was a bunch of us, a pre-planning committee for an event, and we were talking about which technology we should have the soon-to-be appointed program committee use for discussions. Email! Convenient. Accessible by computer or phone. Easily archived, forwarded, quoted, or copied into any other online medium. Why are we even talking about this?

And that's when he said it.

Not so long ago, if you had email you were one of the cool kids, the avant-garde who saw the future and said it was electronic. Most of us spent years convincing our far-flung friends and relatives to get email so we didn't have to phone or - gasp - write a letter that required an envelope and a stamp. Being told that "email is for old people" is a lot like a 1960s "Never trust anyone over 30" hippie finding out that the psychedelic school bus he bought to live in to support the original 1970 Earth Day is a gas-guzzling danger to the climate and ought to be scrapped.

Well, what, then? (Aside: we used to have tons of magazines called things like Which PC? and What Micro? to help people navigate the complex maze of computer choices. Why is there no magazine called Which Social Medium??)

Facebook? Clunky interface. Not everyone wants to join. Poor threading. No easy way to export, search, or archive discussions. IRC or other live chat? No way to read discussion that took place before you joined the chat. Private blog with comments and RSS? Someone has to set the agenda. Twitter? Everything is public, and if you're not following all the right people the conversation is disjointed and missing links you can't retrieve. IM? Skype? Or a wiki? You get the picture.

This week, the Wall Street Journal claimed that "the reign of email is over" while saying only a couple of sentences later, "We all still use email, of course." Now that the Journal belongs to Rupert Murdoch, does no one check articles for sense?

Yes, we all still use email. It can be archived, searched, stored locally, read on any device, accessed from any location, replied to offline if necessary, and read and written thoughtfully. Reading that email is dead is like reading, in 2000, that because a bunch of companies went bust the Internet "fad" was over. No one then who had anything to do with the Internet believed that in ten years the Internet would be anything but vastly bigger than it was then. So: no one with any sense is going to believe that ten years from now we'll be sending and receiving less email than we are now. What very likely will be smaller, especially if industrial action continues, is the incumbent postal services.

What "No one under 30 uses email" really means is that it's not their medium of first choice. If you're including college students, the reason is obvious: email is the official stuff they get from their parents and universities. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and texting is how they talk to their friends. Come the day they join the workforce, they'll be using email every day just like the rest of us - and checking the post and their voicemail every morning, too.

But that still leave the question: how do you organize anything if no one can agree on what communications technology to use? It's that question that the new Google Wave is trying to answer. It's too soon, really, to tell whether it can succeed. But at a guess, it lacks one of the fundamental things that makes email such a lowest common denominator: offline storage. Yes, I know everything is supposed to be in "the cloud" and even airplanes have wifi. But for anything that's business-critical you want your own archive where you can access it when the network fails; it's the same principle as backing up your data.

Reviews vary in their take on Wave. LifeHacker sees it as a collaborative tool. ZDNet UK editor Rupert Goodwins briefly called it Usenet 2.0 and then retracted and explained using the phrase "unified comms".

That, really, is the key. Ideally, I shouldn't have to care whether you - or my fellow committee members - prefer to read email, participate in phone calls (via speech-to-text, text-to-speech synthesizers), discuss via Usenet, Skype, IRC, IM, Twitter, Web forums, blogs, or Facebook pages. Ideally, the medium you choose should be automatically translated in to the medium I choose. A Babel medium. The odds that this will happen in an age when what companies most want is to glue you to their sites permanently so they can serve you advertising are very small.

Which brings us back to email. Invented in an era when the Internet was commercial-free. Designed to open standards, so that anyone can send and receive it using any reader they like. Used, in fact, to alert users to updates they want to know about to their accounts on Facebook/IRC/Skype/Twitter/Web forums. Yes, it's overrun with corporate CYA memos and spam. But it's still the medium of record - and it isn't going anywhere. Whereas: those 20-somethings will turn 30 one day soon.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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