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Will Facebook Kill Email?

Created: 01 Dec 2009 • Updated: 05 Nov 2012
Doug McLean's picture
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Doug McLean - Blogmeister

I audited a class at the local college recently. In the final 5 minutes of the final class, the instructor asserted that, “…social media will kill email.” As one of the very early adopters of email and responsible for bringing a number of email technologies to market, I dismissed his claim as the ranting of a tired lecturer who allowed his mouth to get a beat or two ahead of his brain. In retrospect, however, I’ve concluded he may have had a point.

I have to admit I didn’t see his point until I read a headline recently indicating that 92% of global email traffic is now spam. The fact that most email is junk isn’t news as the percent of measured spam has been hovering around 90% for quite some time. The fact that spam has dominated the email landscape for so long is helping to drive some interesting user behaviors, however.  We’re starting to see reports that some users (mostly young) are giving up email entirely in favor of social media. While I think many email users will have problems doing this, it makes a certain amount of sense. We're now even seeing reports of corporations migrating their communications infrastructure to the social networking platforms.

From a communications perspective, what Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn offer is a simple host based white list functionality. As you confirm “friends” or follow someone on Twitter, all you’re doing is building a list of sources from which you’ve agreed to consume status updates, Tweets, etc.

White lists have been around as an anti-spam technique since the dawn of spam. While they can be demonstrably effective, the approach has never achieved any real traction.  The reasons for this differ for individuals and enterprises. For individuals, until the advent of social media (and the chance to see what your high school classmates look like now), there was no compelling reason to build or maintain the requisite list. For enterprises, it’s simply impractical to isolate themselves from the serendipitous communication that is an integral part of running a business.

Social media platforms alter the equation for both individuals and enterprises.  In the case of individuals, most people have already learned that other than the email they receive from family, friends, and the companies with which they do business, there’s no real reason to read the rest of the email they receive. So using a social media platform for one-to-one or one-to-many communication doesn’t really change an individual’s communication behavior that much.

For enterprises, the situation is a little more complex in that a comprehensive white list necessarily is the aggregate of all their employees' white lists. The tools to assemble and maintain such a list don't exist yet, but they will and they’ll likely be provided by the same social media platforms that many enterprises now prevent their employees from using while at work.

And how will these enterprises deal with the daily communication requests from potential new customers, partners, employees, and vendors?  The same way they do today, with generic sales@, partner@, and staffing@ addresses with spam filters and junior staffers to review them for potentially serious business opportunities.

So will Facebook kill email?  I doubt it. As I noted a few weeks ago, successful information technologies rarely actually die. They tend to get subsumed by other technologies in the inevitable march of progress towards the “next big thing”.  Common examples include the transistor, mainframe computer, and almost every real innovation in programming languages.  A similar fate likely awaits email or at least email as we now think of it.

My personal belief is that email and the social media platforms will develop in ways such that in time they will become indistinguishable. To be clear, I think this may take a long time particularly given the rate at which email technologies now evolve.  However, I think we can expect the big email technology and service providers to add features such as correspondent status and geo-location and the social media platforms to enhance their message addressing, filing, archiving and search capabilities.

The question for those of us in the information security sector is how will we protect the communications flowing through the social media platforms? An even more pressing question for enterprises that allow their employees to use these platforms now is what are the threats and how do we address them? I’ll take up both of these issues next week.