Is MySpace really the future of email?

Am I getting old? Perhaps. I’ve been using email since 1992 when I first went to university so I just find it second nature now. It’s got to the point where I organise my whole life using it and I get quite frustrated when I actually have to call someone to get something done that could more easily be done asynchronously1. But that’s not how many people think according to

The gist is that many people are now using websites such as Facebook and MySpace instead of email. In fact, they claim, teenagers only use email to talk to adults.

Is this the way of the future? Is it only old-age and inertia that’s stopping people like me from using MySpace exclusively?

I don’t think so. It’s not that I’m a Luddite. I do use instant messenger and I use my mobile phone more for text messaging than for voice calls, but there are a few issues that we need to work through first.

The first and most obvious is that of convenience. With email I can use one program (or check one website) to see all the messages that I am interested in reading. With FaceBook I have to check there, and then again on MySpace for my messages there and, finally, still my email just in case someone has mailed me directly or I have a notification from sites that don’t have internal messaging. That’s just a pain! History tells us that these closed systems do not last. Let’s have a look at a couple of examples.

Let’s look at email and how it evolved. In fact, it seems to have evolved in the same direction twice, first as technology allowed and second due to commercial “lock-in.” It started out as a way to communicate between users on a single machine. This doesn’t make much sense if you’re thinking about personal computers, but in the sixties and early seventies the concept of having your own machine just wasn’t a reality. As machines started to be linked together, so did the email systems. This wasn’t always easy as the different operating systems often had their own “standards” and some, such as Unix, often came with several incompatible implementations. After local networks were installed, people starting thinking globally and started plugging their networks together, creating the Internet2.

Many of the PC vendors that had not been involved in earlier eras and the bulletin boards that catered for them3 went straight for the second tier, a proprietary system barely capable of talking to the outside world.? There were a variety of reasons for this. It was by design — not wanting people to exchange messages without buying their software — or laziness but either way the result was the same. To a certain extent that’s where we are still in the Microsoft world. Exchange will talk to the rest of the SMTP world, albeit reluctantly and, even then, it’s not one hundred percent standards compliant4. Meanwhile, the rest of the world, even companies famous for shunning technologies Not Invented There, are using industry standards to communicate.

And if we then step forward to the last decade and the progress of instant messenger software we see the same thing in the process of happening. We start with completely separate islands, where I can talk to other people on, say, AIM but friends on MSN are off limits. I either have to push my “buddies” onto the same network or use applications like Adium so I can connect to multiple networks from the same software. And then a couple of years ago we saw the first signs of interoperability, with a pact between Yahoo and Microsoft. And, increasingly, we see the uptake of open standards like Jabber which is used as the foundation for Google Talk.

So, in the case of both IM and email we started with competing, incompatible technologies that eventually merged into one unified, interoperable version. Is that going to happen with FaceBook and MySpace? I’m not so sure. After all, we already have “messaging” applications outside these social networking sites. I see both as more of a layer on top of traditional email services, acting as an intermediary when communication is first initiated.

I’m not anti-social networking (I am a member on LinkedIn) but I am keen than we don’t take a step back into the “dark days” of the Internet when we had AOL and MSN competing to keep their users separate from the outside world. Walled gardens are not what the Internet is all about; this kind of system only benefits the companies that own the various properties. Let MySpace do the social bit, introducing people, but let the experts, the proven IM and email systems, keep the communication going.

  1. That’s to say, when I send an email you don’t have to be there to answer it. Unlike a phone call or an instant message where you do. []
  2. Okay, so I edited out a few details. I’m trying to show the general trajectory rather than every last twist in the story. []
  3. I’m including systems like AOL and Compuserve here. []
  4. Ever wondered what the winmail.dat files are when you open a message in an application other than Outlook? []