June 10, 2004
E-mail's Not Dead, Eh?

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.

  1. Point: “It’s not dead until I say it’s dead. :-)”

    Response: Hey, whatever you say, bub :-)

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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?

  8. 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?

  9. 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?

  10. 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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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…”

    Response: Newsgator

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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?

  17. 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…

  18. 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.

  19. 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!

  20. 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.

  21. 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?

  22. 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

Some point-by-point comments, then a summary:

2) RSS doesn't have the ubiquitous instructions from for-pay services, though I'd argue it's easier to set up an aggregator than to set up an IMAP or POP account. That being said, once you have the e-mail (which takes advantage of network effects and ad-hoc two-way communication), RSS has to be compellingly better than subscribing to a digest.

4) Like CompuServe? Where are they now? There is a second-mover advantage--not being on the bleeding edge is sometimes a very good business practice. Just because e-mail's not new doesn't mean it's dead, just as RSS may well be around but it's not ready to replace e-mail for outreach.

5) Maybe e-mail will be abandoned, but it does things that other solutions don't do, such as two-way loosely-coupled semi-private communication. RSS, blogs, and IM are all missing key pieces. So I suspect the story of e-mail isn't over. Unfortunately, near-unusability of Windows due to malware and popups hasn't resulted in its downfall, either.

7) See 4. Adam Curry would have been wrong had he depended solely on mtv.com ownership for his income. It's fine to push a technology early, but that's different from saying "e-mail is dead," which is still different from saying "e-mail will die."

8) Yes, because despite that you still do it. When you stop, that's when it doesn't work.

9) The article is entitled "22 Reasons Why E-Mail is Not Dead" not "22 Reasons Why RSS is Dead". Pointing out that other media do not meet all the features of e-mail is an argument for why it may still have value.

10) Windows 3.1 -> Windows 2000 -> Longhorn. (couldn't resist) ;-)

11) You're leaving out the costs of changing to a new system, retraining all non-technical employees, and any advantages e-mail has over another technology. All of that has to be weighed against measures to stop spam. Spam could in fact kill it, but I just want to make the hurdle it faces more clear.

18) In 10 years, the present tense may make sense for "E-mail is dead". Currently, it belongs in future tense. I mean, Humanity is dead, too, because in a million years it's unlikely we will be around in our current form, if we are at all. But for the moment, we're kinda hard to miss.

19) The demand curve has TWO axes. If customer convenience were the sole determinant of producer behavior, do you think we'd have ads on TV? And if TiVo makes ads unprofitable, do you think we'd have product placements in TV shows? Consumers may like the price of what producers are willing to provide one service (ad-supported TV or trackable e-mail) better than the other (pay-per-view, Salon content).

20) OK, I think you both just agreed here.

21) How many days before spammers learned DNS spoofing well enough to man-in-the-middle your feeds? Nobody predicted zombie networks of infected Windows computers, either.

I think you make some good points, and effectively demolish some of the author's weak points. However, you come across as "Switch now or DIE" which hopefully isn't your intent, because if so, your argument is also weak (as in the points I've noted above). I think you're suffering from your 5-minutes-in-the future tendency here. It's OK if mainstream practice takes a while to catch up. Enjoy the benefits of early-mover-advantage, but remember that it only works so well, and under certain circumstances.

RSS does have real advantages for certain types of communication. But I would not advise my clients to ignore either technology, and if they could only afford one technology for communication, I'd still recommend e-mail for the moment. In 5 years' time, it might be different, but that's then.

Posted by: Sandy on June 10, 2004 4:43 PM

Some points --

4) No, not like CompuServe. Picking RSS is not picking an individual winner or loser. (Picking RSS 2.0 or Atom or what have you would be more like that.) Picking RSS is picking a category of technologies and vendors. RSS can do well even if UserLand, Six Apart, Google/Blogger, etc. all go under.

5) I don't think e-mail will be abandoned either. I do think its use will fall back significantly. Windows is a bad counter-example because it can rely on the momentum of a huge installed base and the application barrier to entry, neither of which apply to an XML format for data transport.

7) Who knows how much he got from MTV in the settlement? For all we know he could live off that for quite a while ;-) But seriously, maybe I should clarify the point I made in my Planetwork slide -- it wasn't "e-mail is dead" (which I agree is overwrought), it was "e-mail is BROKEN" (which I think is closer to the mark -- people will suffer with a broken tool for a long time if they don't have alternatives).

8) It's all about building enough momentum to get over that tipping point. We put up with e-mail for notifications because the network effect hasn't picked up enough steam yet. But all the trends are in that direction.

9) Good point.

10) Yes, notice how they ended up throwing away the consumer Windows core and replacing it with NT, even after all the money they poured into 9x?

11) Yup, granted.

18) I think the quote you're looking for is Keynes': "In the long run we are all dead." :-)

19) The curve has two axes (wasn't that a Barbra Streisand movie?), true, but when one axis is shifting it's foolish for the other to plant its feet in the ground and refuse to move. People put up with ads on TV because (for now) that's how they get the content. But who says that's true of mailing lists? Even if I refuse to provide an RSS feed, someone can sign up for my list and provide one FOR me -- see http://www.ppipes.org/ for a demonstration -- and they can even put "Jason sucks for not putting an RSS feed" at the top of every entry. Why should I let that happen just because I'm too paleozoic to move with the market?

20) We agreed? Eh what? I disagree strongly that the impermanence of URIs is somehow a breakage in RSS.

21) Sure, there could be Rumsfeldian "unknown unknowns" lurking out there that break RSS. But you can say that about anything.

Posted by: Jason Lefkowitz on June 10, 2004 5:23 PM

4) I think you miss my point--it's not about picking RSS versus E-mail, it's about organizations that do bet heavily and are early leaders in a technology are not bound to succeed, whereas later players (Comcast) may find it easier to break into the market by seeing the mistakes made by the early adopters. They also may have an easier time in the mature market than early adopters who do survive but have a heavy path-dependence effect (AOL). So the answer about where are the ones who said "e-mail is for nerds" in 1994 is-- http://www.microsoft.com/

20) You both said that both e-mail and RSS have this problem. You both denied it gave the other an advantage. You were both right. ;-)

21) Yes, but I was pointing out that while RSS is not NOW (very) vulnerable to spammers, there are theoretical ways it could be exploited if e-mail died as a medium. Now that I think about it, this is the best argument to go to RSS now as opposed to later.

I think if you explicitly limit your claim to "e-mail for one-to-many communication is broken" you'll find it sufficiently provocative, but easily defensible. That's where it compares least-well against RSS--though there's still the market of RSS consumers versus e-mailers.

Posted by: Sandy on June 10, 2004 5:45 PM

Platform- and application-independent integration of RSS and eMail:


IzyNews is a new way of receiving news and other RSS feeds in your eMail application. With IzyNews, you can subscribe to thousands of weblogs and professionally syndicated headlines feeds for delivery right into your eMail folders.

IzyNews is made to work with a broad variety of popular eMail applications, such as
Outlook Express, Outlook, Pocket PC Inbox, Mozilla, Thunderbird, Eudora, Entourage, Mulberry and many others

Posted by: Ulrich Schwanitz on July 2, 2004 6:25 AM
Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember info?

About Your Host

Ant's Eye View is edited by Jason Lefkowitz, a consultant and Web developer in Alexandria, Virginia. Got a question, comment, or concern? Let me hear it!

Obligatory Disclaimer

If you think anything I write here represents the opinions of anybody but myself, you need more help than I can give you. The opinions are all mine, folks. Nobody else's. ESPECIALLY not my employer's.

If that's too hard to understand... well, I'm sorry. There's only so much I can do. I'm not a therapist, and I'm not a miracle worker. (Unless you consider staying employed in this economy a miracle.) I wish I could help you work through your delusional belief that I'm speaking for anyone else but myself. Honestly, I do. But in the end, that's a monkey you'll have to get off your back on your own. Sorry.