Productivity

Email is still the glue that holds the social Web together

Email is old and in decline. Chat, texting and social networks are how people interact now, right?

Well, not so fast.

With every new social network and social service, with every new instant and not-so-instant way to communicate, email rises in importance. The reason is that with everybody choosing a different communications medium, email is increasingly the only one we all have in common. It's the glue that holds the social Web together.

I prefer Google+. My mom and one of my kids are on Facebook. My other kid is on Twitter. One of my nieces is on Pinterest. One of my best friends is on Path. Another is on Pheed. My dad isn't really sure what a social network is.

The fact that everybody is using a social network, and a different one, doesn't matter. I still reach them all thanks to the Mother of All Social Networks -- email.

It helps that the regular social networks do (and must) integrate with email. For example, on Google+ I've added non-Google+ users to my circles. When I post to "Family," the family members on Google+ get a post in their stream and the rest get the post in their email in-boxes.

I also have my most important circles update me via Gmail. Those posts just show up there, and I can engage with them instantly, right in the message.

Even though I don't use Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or other social networks much, I do have all those services set up to send, via email, posts from the people on those services I care about.

In all those cases, email is an extension of Google+. Email takes social networking posts where the social networks cannot go.

(It's a category-busting irony that I do all of my blogging on a social network and much of my social networking in an email service.)

My Hangouts chats and Google Voice texts, missed calls and voicemails all end up in email, too.

Like everybody else, I use a wide variety of communications media. But email is the central element in all of them.

So email is the glue that holds together dedicated social networks. It's also the biggest social network by far. There are 2.4 billion people on the Internet worldwide, according to website monitoring service Pingdom, and 2.2 billion of them use email.

That's why the idea that young people will never use email is absurd. Sure, high school kids can get by with just Snapchat. But once you have a job and an adult life, not using email is like not having a phone. Opting out of email is career suicide.

What's really interesting to me is that email has recently become an exciting category. No, really!

What is email, anyway?

Email is really two things. First, it's an Internet-based messaging format standard. That's the part of email that makes it universal and therefore indispensable.

But email is also a software and cloud application category. And that's where the excitement is happening.

Recent innovations in user interface design and improvements in sorting algorithms have massively improved the experience of using email.

More to the point, software design has caught up with the reality of what people are really doing with email. Primarily, people are doing social networking, as in networking socially or professionally with the people they know. They're doing this email-to-email and also email-to-social-network.

Second, people are subscribing to and reading online publications, maintaining to-do lists, getting calendar and other notifications and a gazillion other things.

The new world of intelligent email

Google this week started rolling out an optional Gmail redesign that auto-sorts messages into tabbed categories, such as "Primary" (real people), "Social" (social networking messages), "Promotions" (commercial content you signed up for), "Updates" (alerts and notifications from various services) and "Forums" (updates from online message boards). You can take or leave any of these tabs. Gmail will auto-sort your email, but you can also use filters to make email with certain criteria go into certain tabs or simply "train it" by dragging and dropping emails into the tabs in which you want future such emails to go.

This is a really handy update because instead of treating all incoming mail as either spam or not spam, it divides email into six categories, which better reflects the reality of email.

Microsoft recently shut down its Hotmail service and moved everybody over to Outlook.com, the cloud version of its Outlook email application.

Like Gmail, Outlook.com is increasingly good at integrating other services, bringing in Skype video calls and chats, including chats with Google users, as well as SkyDrive support, which is Microsoft's cloud storage service. It also enables users to have their contacts automatically updated from multiple social networks.

Another cool trend is the way mobile interface designs are improving. A Dropbox app called Mailbox recently became a darling of the iPhone crowd. It hooks into your Gmail account and provides a fantastic, touch-native interface. Swiping a message all the way to the right deletes it, swiping part way to the right archives it, and swiping it to the left brings up a screen of options for making the message go away temporarily, from "later today" to "tomorrow" to "someday" and several others.

Mailbox is really simple and that's the point. All mobile email should work like that.

Dropbox launched an iPad version of Mailbox last week and promises an Android version soon.

Email as a platform

Beyond intelligence, integration and interface improvements, the status of email as a platform is one of the most intriguing developments.

Email applications are getting more features all the time. But increasingly, if your email service lacks a feature you want, you can add it with a plug-in or add-on.

A new world of Gmail and Outlook add-ons, which are actually browser extensions, enable you to do things like delay the sending of email, track messages and get notifications when recipients open your message. Some of the best ones are Boomerang, Bananatag and Right Inbox.

Other add-ons let you get around file attachment size limitations. Still others serve specific professionals, such as salespeople.

Email add-ons and plug-ins have become so numerous that I can't even list all the categories. To find them, simply search the Web for "Gmail plugins" or "Outlook plugins."

Why email is the best social network

Email is not only the biggest, most important and in some ways most vibrant social network, it's also the best.

The reason is that as social networks become more automated and algorithmically determined, and noisy and full of intrusive advertising, email provides a user interface to those same networks, but with you in control.

Using the notification settings on each social network, as well as the filters or rules on your email service and browser add-ons and plug-ins, you can get all the benefits of all your social networks -- including the same people -- without most of the irritating downsides.

By all means, let's discover and explore social networking sites and spend time enjoying our favorites.

But don't forget that email isn't just the oldest social network, it's also the biggest, the broadest, the most user-controllable, the most integrated, the most powerful and ultimately the best social network on the Internet.

This article, " The Social Network Wars Are Over. The Winner: Email!," was originally published on Computerworld.com.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him on Google+. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

Read more about social media in Computerworld's Social Media Topic Center.

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