E-mail Must Die

E-mail doesn't make sense. Text messaging doesn't make sense. Neither does instant messaging. Phone calls don't make any sense. These systems are all outdated and its time to scrap them for a much smarter system.

Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg recently declared e-mail a dying breed, mostly because teenagers seem to prefer other forms of communication. In a rebuttal, Nick Saint at Silicon Alley Insider says that Sandberg was misreading the Pew study that brought her to that conclusion, but Saint is missing the point entirely. It doesn't matter if teens were never e-mailing each other in the first place, or it they are using other means to communicate. These methods need to die regardless.

Imagine we live in a world with all the technological advances of our current one, but nobody has an e-mail address or a phone number. How would you design a communication medium for the world to talk to each other? It certainly wouldn't be the current paradigm. You would never say: here, have a ten digit number that corresponds to a small electronic device that will make noise and jump around when someone types in those digits on a similar device. When only a few thousand people had telephones, it might have made sense to have a number that corresponded to that person's state, city and local area, as phone numbers originally did. Now, it makes no sense.

I have three phone numbers. One is a Boston phone number that I got years ago. I've moved to New York, back to Boston, back to New York and now to Texas since I got that number. On my second stint in the New York area, I also picked up a work phone number, and I've kept that one as well. I keep both because I like having two cell phones, but nobody knows which number to use to reach me. Am I carrying my Nexus One today or my Palm Pre?

To solve that problem, I got a Google Voice number. It uses a Montana area code, which is tough to explain when it shows up on a friend's phone. The last seven digits spell a word that I thought people could remember, but they don't. I though I was making things easier by offering one number that would reach all my phones at once, even the test phones I use for reviews. But my mother still has trouble changing her phone book without my personal assistance, and my friends are too lazy to remember which number to call. Besides, most of my phones don't integrate tightly with Google Voice, and sometimes Google Voice doesn't work properly. So, when my friends look at their call log and redial the last number I used, it usually isn't the GV number, it's the number of the phone I was using. Problem not solved.

E-mail, in its own way, is even worse. My first real Internet e-mail address was st931341@pip.cc.brandeis.edu. Once you've memorized that ridiculous code, it's hard to forget. I've had more e-mail addresses than phone numbers, and now I've finally settled on a Gmail address, which I hope will be more permanent. Of course, I have to have a professional address for work, separate from my personal address, but I send those messages to the same mailbox. It's not like I'm keeping my personal address secret, since I often forget which account I'm using in Gmail and send messages from the wrong one.

What happens when I make that mistake? Nothing. No problems. Because my business associates aren't looking for my domain, they're looking for my name.

That was Sandberg's real point. Instead of worrying about numbers and domains, codes and allegiances, Facebook is only concerned with names. If my friends want to send me an email on Facebook, they don't need to know which number to use. They just click on my name and know it will get to me. Of course, I have Facebook send messages to my email account, and I can check notifications on my phone, but these are really incidental. It's time for communication to be based around identities and people, and not on obscure codes and distant servers.

I would go even further than Sandberg. Why stop with e-mail? When we write to someone via e-mail, what we're really doing is sending them a long form text message. When we send a text message, we're sending a shorter note. Instant messaging is just that, instantaneous. Other forms are not as urgent.

Communication comes down to a series of questions. Do I want to communicate with my voice or with text, or even in pictures? Do I need the person to get the message immediately, or can it wait? Should it wait? Is this a business message, or personal? Do I have a lot to say, or just a little?

Right now, every different answer requires a different mode of communication, a different address. Some don't even exist yet. If I want to communicate by voice, but I don't need the person to hear the message immediately, I can send a MMS message with an audio recording, or I can pray that my recipient won't answer and I'll be sent directly to voice mail.

This doesn't make sense. This isn't how we'd design a communication system from the ground up. We wouldn't start with the device, or with the company that provides the e-mail address. We would start with the person. Then we would make all of the other decisions.

There's a great opportunity here for a communications platform that would change the way we get in touch with each other. I think it would even change the way we relate to each other. You don't need to know the special codes, you just need to know the person's identity. There are problems to solve, like multiple people with the same name, or privacy protection, but those problems are not insurmountable. I'd be curious to hear what those solutions might be.