Vint Cerf: Young People Will Switch Online Channels as They Age

Cross-posted on K Street Cafe

Even in the Early Days of, back when we powered the servers with wood, coal and fuel-grade mummies, plenty of people were already predicting the demise of email as a marketing/communications tool. More than two years later, it’s still a popular hobby among online experts (hi, Jeff!). I understand the logic behind the idea of a slow fade for electronic mail, and I’m sure that those predicting it are at least partially correct — as a communications channel, email’s gained so much competition over the past few years that any other trend would be hailed as an online miracle.

But despite the spread of instant messaging, social network messaging, SMS, RSS, Twitter, etc., I’ve always suspected that we’ll continue to need a common-denominator text-based communications tool — a straightforward way to transfer (and preserve) information. But what kind of tool? Young people in the U.S. continue to tend to use text messaging, IM and Facebook/MySpace messaging to email’s near-exclusion, leading many to expect that they’d continue the habit into their adult/professional lives. I’ve always figured some people WILL continue to use the now-new channels almost exclusively but I’ve never been firmly convinced that we’ll entirely turn to a set of proprietary systems, or that the need for the electronic equivalent of a letter will go away.

In a presentation I attended with a group of friends from the online politics crowd at The Cosmos Club on Monday, internet pioneer/Google “Technology Evangelist” (and future U.S. CTO?) Vint Cerf happened to make the issue snap into focus: while answering a question from the audience, he mentioned that he expected today’s young people to change their behavior as they age because they’ll be maintaining different kinds of relationships then than they do now. In high school and college, young people are usually communicating with peers who are nearby and living lives with similar patterns, but as they all move into adulthood, their lives will scatter and diverge in ways that often make delayed/deferred communications more useful than immediate communications. In other words, IM’ing is great when you’re gossipping with classmates, but email may be better when you’re catching up with that friend across the country who suddenly has three kids under the age of five.

That caught it in a powerfully simple and straightforward way: one of email’s strengths is that it IS asynchronous — that it ISN’T necessarily immediate, since you can read that email instantly or a week later. Of course, the same applies to messaging via Facebook or MySpace, but here’s where my personal bias connects with Cerf’s observation: I’ll submit that the thing that made Facebook messsaging useful (to me, at least) was when the “you have a message” notification emails began including the actual text someone was sending to you. Before that, when I had to click through to the Facebook site to see any message at all, I often didn’t bother. But since connecting email and Facebook (connecting Facebook to a common communications ground) made BOTH more effective, the change hasn’t led me to replace email completely with a proprietary messaging system — Facebook helps keep me in touch with people with whom I then email MORE.

In any case, besides being a thoughtful discussion, Cerf’s Cosmos Club presentation was a chance to glimpse a fascinating D.C. subculture — anything that’s over 100 years old and has “club” in its name is likely to be worthy of anthropological study. And this joint did not disappoint, believe you me. Dig the entranceway below (via iPhone camera/Photoshop), and you will not be surprised that The Cosmos Club has a jacket-and-tie requirement — fortunately, The Good Doktor Rosenblatt and I had both been warned.

Cosmos Club


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • Agreed, Colin. As you point out in the post, you have to look at where people are in life. In college, most of the email you get is from professors and parents. But when you graduate, you have a work inbox, where incoming distractions are welcome, and from what I’ve seen, pretty widespread adoption of accounts for happy hour updates.

    As long as email remains the primary communication tool at work, young people will end up using it, too. About once a week, another recently-graduated friend of mine shows off their shiny new Blackberry. Never underestimate the impact of other people paying for things.

  • I think it is an either or and I think it is a both and. I think you need to see at least another decade of stats – and to see how it pans out. Will email/soc nets be the divide between work and leisure online communications?

    I don’t think email will NOT become extinct, but perhaps more as a professional or business channel. We still use phones, right?

    This generation Z are those who are growing up not knowing what it is like not to have social networks for communications – so it’s part of the DNA. But, when they grow and go into the workplace, will their habits change after work?

    Will enterprise 2.0 have an impact on culture change within organizations?

    Lots to chew on – sounds like the session was thought provoking. Any transcripts?