I caught some flak after my Planetwork presentation for including a slide titled “E-mail: Black Hole of Dreams” that laid out the reasons why e-mail as a medium is a pretty unappealing proposition right now, and pointing to RSS as an appealing alternative for some uses. Most of it came from people whose points could have come straight from an article I just came across, “22 Reasons Why E-Mail is Not Dead”.
Unsurprisingly I think many of these 22 points are bogus, or at least poorly thought through, so I thought I’d take a moment and give my responses to them.
Point: “It’s not dead until I say it’s dead. :-)”
Response: Hey, whatever you say, bub :-)
Point: “RSS and XML do not pass ‘does my mother or father understand how to use it’ test.”
Response: Unfair comparison — RSS doesn’t pass that test yet because it’s earlier along the development curve. Did mom and pop understand how to set up a POP account in 1994?
Point: “Email is easy to use… unlike the uncertainty laced in XML syndication standards yet today, email is standardized, stable, and reliable.”
Response: Again, apples and oranges. Of course e-mail is more stable — it’s been under development for 20+ more years. That hardly indicates an inherent flaw in RSS.
Point: “Right now, only nerds and early adopters like XML.”
Response: Funny, I remember people saying the same thing about e-mail in the mid-90s. “Don’t waste your time with that stuff, it’s just for geeks.” Wonder where they are now?
Point: “When tele-marketers discovered that the telephone could be used to solicit customers, the telephone medium did not die. Just because spammers have clogged the value of email does not mean the medium is over.”
Response: No, it just means the medium will be abandoned to either (a) those who have no alternative channels to use and (b) the truly stupid. Usenet is still up and running, for example, even though the signal-to-noise ratio there made it impossible to use productively sometime around 1997 or so. These are hardly the audiences most marketers (or organizers) want to reach, unless you’re selling things that depend solely on the customer’s gullibility for their appeal.
Point: “Spammers have expanded beyond email anyway… In fact, ‘Comment Spam’ (the spamming of blogs via the comment system) is a real problem in the blogosphere.”
Response: And this has what to do with RSS? Nothing, that’s what. RSS is unspammable; if someone starts putting annoying ads in their feeds, I just unsubscribe and poof, no more annoyance. It’s as opt-in as you can get.
Point: “Those who say email is dead (Chris Pirillo, Adam Cury, etc) are years ahead of the masses.”
Response: Yes, they are. Adam Curry recognized that MTV.com was a valuable domain name in 1993, so he registered it then — long before MTV itself saw the value in that property. Was he wrong?
Point: “Our lives are centered on email, and they will remain centered on email for a long while to come. In the morning, I guarantee that every single BLOGGER and early adopter checks his or her email.”
Response: … and digs through tons of spam to find the few actual nuggets of correspondence buried within. Is this the hallmark of a technology that works?
Point: “Instant messaging is cool, but it is not always on my terms… Email delivers control or at least the perception of increased control.”
Response: Unsolicited spam makes you feel more in control? Maybe more in control than instant message spam (which I have gotten, yes) but it’s just a difference of degree. And again, remind me what this has to do with RSS?
Point: “Email deliverability is a real issue today, and one that may take time to solve. I’m confident it will get solved as many millions are being expended to that end.”
Response: If a technology is fundamentally flawed, you can shovel as much money at it as you want; you’re never going to fix it unless you replace it universally, and at that point you haven’t “fixed” it, you’ve replaced it!
Point: “Corporations/companies can not adopt the bleeding edge. They will spend money to stop viruses from spreading, stop spam and hackers from invading their network — but they will not abandon email for many decades to come.”
Response: Corporations are driven by profit and loss. If an alternative comes along that doesn’t require “money to stop viruses… spam… and hackers”, and that costs the same to deploy, they’ll buy it.
Point: “Depending on how you look at it, email is a push medium that grabs your attention. XML by itself does not grab your attention and it has not been integrated into standard email client software yet. RSS/ATOM readers built into an email client would be nice…”
Point: “Bloggers use email to notify people back to their blogs.”
Response: No, that’s what they use RSS for. Some use e-mail notifications too, but RSS is the de facto standard for blog update notification.
Point: “The protocols for the current standards we enjoy for email were started in the 1970s. While we are due for a major re-thinking on how email as a medium could and can be used for the future — it’s foundation is 30 years in thought and effort.”
Response: Yep, and 30 years ago nobody had any idea how vast and commercial the Internet would become, and it shows every time I open my e-mail client.
Point: “The anti-spam tools available today can help you re-take control of your email inbox. Whether you are using simple spam filters or spam filtering services, there is no reason spam has to ruin the value of email to you.”
Response: I use a combination of client-side and server-side spam filtering and still get a good bit of spam every day. Most users aren’t nearly as clueful as I am in terms of how to set these things up. I can only imagine how much they get.
Point: “As email clients evolve to include additional tools, RSS/ATOM readers, instant messaging, calendaring, note management, Wiki’s and other collaborative tools; the strength of email at the center of communication protocols will ensure that it is far from dead.”
Response: Yeah, my mail client reads Usenet newsgroups, too. Does that mean Usenet is still vital?
Point: “Those who say EMAIL IS DEAD have economic interests in RSS/XML. Sure they are saying it because they want their standard to replace email. Can we say, BIASED? :)”
Response: Bzzzt. I’ve got no economic interest in RSS, I just want a reliable channel for delivering messages to people who care about them. And considering that this article is running on “Emailuniverse.com”, I could say something about glass houses…
Point: “RSS/XML will not kill email publishers. In addition to email, they can add this technology. Show me one large email publisher who shut down their email lists because they loved RSS/XML so much more.”
Response: Like I said, we’re at the very beginning of the RSS adoption curve. Come back to me in ten years and tell me if it hasn’t impacted the e-mail publishing marketplace.
Point: “Email plays such an important role that new tools have been developed to help with measurement of email’s effectiveness.”
Response: I love these arguments — “we can’t go to RSS, how will we measure open rates/unsubscribes/etc.?” Guess what, users don’t care whether or not you can track metrics. All that matters for the adoption of a technology is that it serve users better and more effectively than the alternatives. What are we supposed to do, go to our users and say “we know RSS would be more convenient for you, but gosh, you’re gonna have to put up without it because we won’t be able to run our monthly reports anymore?” Do you think they actually give a damn about your monthly reports? What shocking arrogance!
Point: “Email may be transient (meaning people change email addresses and forget or intentionally do not update others on their new email address) — but the XML/RSS world has its own problems with the impermanence of supposedly permanent links.”
Response: That’s not an RSS problem, that’s a WWW problem. Resources can move from one URI to another. But guess what, that’s a problem for e-mail too! After all, what are you using to refer people back to your Web site from those e-mails you’re blasting out, magic pixie dust? No, you’re using links — the same links whose breakage you think is a problem for RSS. If you can manage that problem for e-mail publishing, you can manage it for RSS.
Point: “Think about this: If all email servers of Earth were knocked offline by some evil force, and you could only use RSS, how would you cope? How would you receive your websites order and shipment notifications? How would you be able to use eBay? How many days before spammers invade and turn the RSS world upside down because it does not meet their needs?”
Response: How many days until eBay learned to notify me by RSS? How many days until I unsubscribed from any feed that was dumb enough to accept ads from spammers?
Point: “Email can be used definitively and dynamically for the START and END of group collaboration, unlike Wiki’s and other online web collaboration tools that do not always have a definitive end. Example: Emailing Sally, David, and Suzi about a business problem transcends corporate boundaries, allows you to REPLY-ALL to discuss the issue and when the problem is solved, the emails cease and the issue is closed.”
Response: Allow me to translate the author’s point into English — “I don’t know how to use Wikis.” See, that didn’t take nearly as many words, did it?
I don’t think RSS is the be-all and end-all of online communication. I think e-mail still has its place for certain types of correspondence (personal messaging, for example). But for automated notification, how anyone can argue that e-mail beats RSS is beyond me.Posted by Jason Lefkowitz at June 10, 2004
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