A flurry of blogs and news items on the Internet last week suggested that young Internet users are increasingly relying on instant messaging, texting and social networking sites to communicate, often via mobile devices, and almost to the exclusion of e-mail.
One of those blogs, by Chad Lorenz at Slate, even asserted that "e-mail is looking obsolete," under the headline "The Death of E-Mail."
But the reality is much more complex. Some market reports and analysts predict that e-mail accounts will continue to grow as other messaging modes gain popularity and as use of the Internet expands globally.
And while teenagers under 18 appear to often eschew e-mail for social networks or IM, three college students under 21 said in interviews that they rely on e-mail as much as other modes of communication for complicated, lengthier or formal interactions, such as with professors, and with other students involved in group projects and other school work.
The college crowd
"I used IM a lot in high school, but my IM use decreased in college," said Matt Melymuka, a junior majoring in finance at Georgetown University in Washington. "I use e-mail a lot ... very frequently," he said, noting that he sends e-mail to professors about assignments and to other students involved in group projects for classes.
He estimated that the university sends about 10 broadcast e-mails every day on a range of subjects including public safety. "E-mail is the most formal and best means of communicating, definitely," he said.
However, Melymuka also declared himself a "pretty big" text messaging user, finding that sending text messages from his mobile phone is more useful than e-mail for quick social interactions.
In similar fashion, Andy Tybus, majoring in mechanical engineering at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, said he checks e-mail at least three times a week to communicate with project group members and to monitor official messages from school officials. But Tybus also has a Facebook page that he checks daily for messages and a Treo wireless handheld that he uses to check and send e-mail.
Ben Parker, who is studying music education, said he checks e-mail as many as three times a day to monitor changes in homework or ensemble rehearsals. The school's public safety officials also use e-mail to notify students about safety concerns. "A lot of students here use e-mail," he said. "You have to check it for classes and homework, so it's really important."
Still, Parker uses texting from his phone for quick message bursts about meeting others at a school concert, for example, and checks his Facebook page often to stay in touch with friends, he said.
The messaging habits of those three college students might contrast with younger Internet users, but they also support the premise that e-mail is not dead at all, one analyst said in an interview.
"E-mail is not dead. Just because newer methods are growing doesn't mean the old method of e-mail is dying. It's not a zero-sum game," said Alan Reiter, an analyst at Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing.
Reiter sees the available modes of communication growing as the Internet grows, and sees younger users becoming savvy at several messaging modes, giving emphasis to one or the other depending on their age. Eventually, they will even adopt video messaging when the technology and pricing are within reach, he added. "We are really entering a multimedia communications age, and that means video," he said.
At least one market research company, Radicati Group, supports what Reiter and others say: that e-mail is still growing despite growth in other messaging modes. Radicati said there are about 1.4 billion e-mail accounts globally and that number is expected to grow by about 200 million next year and by about 800 million in 2011.