Is e-mail only for the old? That’s the contention of a string of articles published in the last four months, the most recent appearing today in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle says that in a study last year, “teenagers preferred new technology, like instant messaging or text messaging, for talking to friends and use e-mail to communicate with ‘old people.'” The Mercury News says, “For those of you who have just figured out how to zap spam or manage your inbox, prepare for the bad news: E-mail is, like, so yesterday.” And then there’s USA Today, which makes the claim that “E-mail is so last millennium.”
Those are pretty dramatic statements, and they’re based in part on last year’s Pew Internet & American life study on teen Internet habits. 87 percent of teenagers in the US now use the Internet, and many of them prefer instant messaging to e-mail. According the report, “Teens who participated in focus groups for this study said that they view e-mail as something you use to talk to ‘old people,’ institutions, or to send complex instructions to large groups. When it comes to casual written conversation, particularly when talking with friends, online instant messaging is the clearly the mode of choice for today’s online teens.”
This is a problem for institutions that use e-mail as an official communications tool, since students often miss announcements or deadlines. Unfortunately, IM isn’t great for sending out reminders with lots of specifics, such as instructions for registration. What’s a college to do?
For some schools, the correct answer is: set up a MySpace page. After all, there’s nothing hipper for students than being “friends” with your college registrar or school principal. The intriguing thing about this method of reaching students is that it’s most often not “instant” at all; students receive messages when they log in or they visit the school’s MySpace pages—the equivalent of using e-mail and a Web portal.
E-mail isn’t dying, but it’s grown a little sick. comScore Media Metrix found that in April 2006, teen e-mail use was down 8 percent from a year before. Teens are using IM and MySpace for communication with friends, but they haven’t abandoned the tool—that’s why 89 percent of teens who use the Internet still use e-mail, while only 75 percent use instant messaging.
But they have learned its limitations. One of those limitations is the staggering volume of spam that clogs most inboxes and the aggressive spam filters that make it impossible to know if any particular message got through.
And for those worried that we are raising a generation of children who develop friendships only by staring at their monitors, the Pew report also contains an encouraging word. Teenagers till spend more time interacting face-to-face with friends than they do using technology.