Monday, October 7, 2013

E-mail generation

E-mail is the default tool for digital communication in most organisations. You simply can't work without it and since most people have mobile access to their work account the mails just keep rolling in 24/7. The sheer volume of e-mail leads to considerable stress and I've seen colleagues with over 100 unread mails in their inbox. Even if most users complain about the volume and have problems clearing the backlog very few dare to use other services even if they are patently better at doing some of the jobs that e-mail fails to do. We somehow see e-mail as more trustworthy than other types of communication such as instant messaging, shared work spaces or collaborative documents despite the often-reported fact that over 90% of all e-mail is spam and so many viruses, trojans and other malware are transmitted by e-mail. It's a complicated love-hate relationship.

Students however have abandoned e-mail, according to an article the New York Times, Technology and the College Generation. Students seldom check their student e-mail accounts and this leads to a communication breakdown between them and their e-mail generation teachers and administrators. In the past there were often complaints about the university forcing students to use university accounts rather than letting them use their own private e-mail addresses but today's students don't even have an e-mail account. Some only have an account because many services like booking concert tickets or downloading a game demand an address in order to register. Using e-mail for communication is virtually unknown.

So students have abandoned e-mail whilst most people over 25 is hooked on it. That doesn't mean we're any good at using it. We misuse e-mail all the time, using it for tasks it simply is no good at. Most people still edit texts by mailing dozens of updated copies back and forth to each other when Google Drive or other collaborative tools do the job so much better. Many meetings take 50 e-mails to arrange (all using the dreaded Reply all button) instead of using a service like Doodle. Long discussions between members of a group (using Reply all to a group of thirty members) can fill your inbox in no time when the whole debate would be more efficiently run in a discussion forum.

The article also points out that faculty use of e-mail is not exactly exemplary:

“Faculty and staff love to blame students for not checking e-mail instead of owning up to the fact that no one ever got that good at using e-mail in the first place,” he said, citing vague subject lines and (exaggerating to make his point) 36-paragraph e-mails from faculty in which the crucial information is in paragraph 27. “How are they going to learn to use e-mail when that’s the model, and why would they want to?”

E-mail, like most tools, is good for some things and not so good at other things. Over the last 15 years we've used it for just about every type of transaction. Maybe we should listen to the students and try new ways of communicating, leaving e-mail to deal with what it's good at. Maybe if we were less addicted to it the spammers might also have top reconsider.


  1. Do you know what platforms students are most likely to use if they are not using e-mail? I notice I get a much quicker response when texting my students, but I am not sure that is true of all.

  2. Texting is of course massive but also instant messaging via Facebook, Google+, Skype etc. But I think most tend to communicate in closed groups rather than broadcasting.