Email: Nearly five decades old and still going strong.

It seems almost unbelievable that the first e-mail was sent nearly 50 years ago. That makes e-mail older than the majority of the people who live in the United States.

But in another sense, e-mail seems timeless. That’s underscored in the results from Adobe’s latest Consumer E-Mail Survey Report, released this past month.

One of the key findings from that survey is that ~85% of the respondents see their use of e-mail increasing or staying the same over the next two years.

Even many Gen Z respondents – people in their 20s – see their use of e-mail in similar terms; ~41% of them predict that their use of e-mail at work will increase, and ~30% see the same happening in their personal e-mail use.

In the work environment, e-mail has solidified itself as the preferred method of communication for many of the activities of daily interaction. When compared against other methods of communication like phone, face-to-face interaction, instant messaging, video chat, file sharing and enterprise social networks, e-mail comes out on top in many instances:

  • Communicating status updates on a project: ~60% prefer e-mail, followed by phone (~16%)
  • Delivering feedback: ~52% prefer e-mail, followed by phone (~30%)
  • Getting a brief question answered: ~35% prefer e-mail, followed by face-to-face (~25%)

And yet … there are a number of tasks where a face-to-face conversation is more preferred as a communications method:

  • Suggesting a new approach or idea
  • Asking for help on a big project
  • Alerting your manager or boss of an important issue

But without a doubt, “quitting your job” is where more than three-fourths of respondents consider a face-to-face communication as the most appropriate method, compared to just 11% who consider e-mail to be appropriate for communicating that kind of news.

These characteristics serve to illustrate that e-mail’s big power is in its efficiency and effectiveness for facilitating more “transactional” communications. But for topics and tasks that require more social finesse – like asking for help, pitching a new idea, or discussing problems – face-to-face interaction still rules the day.

This explains e-mail’s ubiquity and its staying power. It’s quite elegant, really; tt does what it needs to do – communicating quickly and efficiency without unnecessary complications.

  • E-mail enables both send and receive to communicate on their respective timelines, without disruption.
  • It provides an archival record of communication (just ask Wikileaks).
  • It’s fully integrated into people’s work flows.

This last point helps explain why so many “alternative” communication methods fail to catch on in a major way. The next time you hear of some start-up enterprise promising to abolish the inbox, take it with a big grain of salt.

History and logic would suggest that something, someday would overtake e-mail and make it obsolete. After all, in the 50 years since e-mail has been with us, we’ve see all sorts of other communications tools lose their luster – think VCRs, FAX machines, tape decks, QR codes, and information on CD-ROM.

But e-mail may be the exception. It’s pretty amazing how something that’s changed so little over the decades is still such an integral part of our communications.

More findings from the 2017 Adobe survey are summarized here.

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