The Kids Are Alright, and They Might Help Save Email

My 15 year old cousin tells me he doesn’t use email except to communicate with adults or send in homework. That’s not so surprising, since I’ve watched from afar as he shares photos from his phone and campaigns for student council via Facebook. It’s also consistent with surveys regarding “digital natives.”

But it’s not just teens who look at email differently. My fellow 23 year old roommates use MySpace to communicate with their friends and use their GMail or Yahoo! accounts for buying stuff online, if at all.

This shift makes me feel very out-of-step with my peers and relatives, but that’s not why I’m writing this post — there’s a broader significance here, it seems. Spam and phishing have spurred technical attempts to “fix” email. These schemes often threaten email as a vibrant medium for speech and rely on an incorrect assumption: to accommodate certain uses, we have to sacrifice email’s relative openness, low barriers to use, and/or support for anonymity.

But that’s a false choice. We could also do as the digital natives already are — when email doesn’t suit their needs, they use one of many alternatives. They can move fluidly between MySpace, IM, blogs, other tools, and email. Spam can happen through other tools too, but now you can mix and match more closed, limited communication systems with more open systems like email — for example, you can use a friends-only whitelist for Facebook messages but let everything through to your email box, and, that way, you get the best of both worlds.

Digital natives don’t seem to care much about changing email, and that should give businesses and policymakers pause when they consider “fixing” it.

3 Responses to “The Kids Are Alright, and They Might Help Save Email”

  1. November 25th, 2006 | 12:28 pm

    […] Derek Slater notices, as others have, that Digital Natives only use email for “formal” activities, liking corresponding with adults and turning in homework.  Informal interaction is through internal communications mechanisms in Facebook or MySpace or on IM.  I wonder if it’s push (e-mail is less useful than it once was, plagued by spam and so forth) or pull (the other applications are better, faster, more convenient) or a combination.  Great insight, in any event. […]

  2. December 4th, 2006 | 3:48 pm

    Well I think the more and more spam the gets into our emails the more us digital natives will find our own ways to fight back. Take for example the many new email networks that are springing up or the new to post your email by putting it in a picture so spam bots can’t detect it.

    Thank You

  3. February 16th, 2007 | 5:03 pm

    I’ve read this on a few places on your blog and was wondering .. what do you mean by ‘Digital Natives’? Are you referring to people who are familiar with technology?