Email most definitely not dead

Check out these recent-ish headlines from the Intarwebz:

“Email is dead: Check out these 8 innovating alternatives instead” (Business Insider)

“Nine reasons e-mail is dead” (

“Is e-mail dead?” (Discovery News)

“The end of the e-mail era” (Wall Street Journal)

I’ve never bought the premise that email is on the way out. New research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project shows just how entrenched it is. From the report:

Search and email remain the two online activities that are nearly universal among adult internet users, as 92% of online adults use search engines to find information on the Web, and a similar number (92%) use email. Since the Pew Internet Project began measuring adults’ online activities in the last decade, these two behaviors have consistently ranked as the most popular, even as new platforms, broadband and mobile devices continue to reshape the way Americans use the internet and web.

I conducted an interview with report author Kristen Purcell. By email.

Your report says that over time, the most significant change in email and search is that those activities “have become more habitual.” What do you mean?

For both email and search, while the overall percent of adult internet users who “ever” engage in these activities online has increased a bit over time, the bigger jump is in the percentage of adult internet users who do these things on a typical day. Our surveys asked not only “Do you ever use the internet to send or read email?” is also asks whether the person happened to do this “yesterday” meaning the day before the survey.

We do the same for search engine use. This gives us a good sense of not only how many adults ever engage in these online activities, but how many are doing so on a given day. The latter number has grown considerably in the past decade.

Today, we find that about six in ten online adults engage in each of these activities on a typical day; in 2002, just 49% of adults internet users used email each day, and just 29% used a search engine on a typical day.

What does it say about search and email that they’ve remained on top of users’ activities, despite the seemingly constant development of new activities and platforms?

People used to talk a lot about finding the “killer app” and I think email and search are two great examples of that.

Pew Internet has found consistently over the past decade that the two major roles the internet plays in people’s lives are communication and information gathering. Email has been the core of online communication for a long time, and remains so for most people. This is due in part to the fact that many people use email for their jobs, and/or use email to communicate with older family members and friends who may not be texting or instant messaging or Skyping or on social networking sites.

You can see in the report that even among online adults age 65+, 87% use email, including 49% who use it on a typical day. Those figures are MUCH MUCH higher than you would find for that age group for other kinds of online communication.

I still hear tech pundits saying, “Email is dead.” Which is kind of funny and quite wrong, no?

Yes, this seems to be a popular position today. Our data tell us that not only is email not dead, it continues to thrive. Whether that will always be the case we don’t know. But what was most surprising in this survey was that among adult internet users, the youngest adults (age 18-29) were the most likely to say they use email. While it is true that this generation also engages in things like texting and social networking at very high rates, they have not abandoned email.

We find that young adults (and teens) recognize the nuances between different forms of communication and learn to use them in the settings in which they are most appropriate. So, texting is good for some things, like making plans with friends, but email might be better for something else, like asking your college professor a question about an assignment. Email is just one tool in a vast communication toolkit.

Anything in this survey, or other Pew surveys, that outlines what pre-teens and teens are doing with email? Lower level of use?

Yes, in our last teen survey we found that 73% of online teens (12-17) use email. That number has two caveats, however.

First, remember that this age group is not yet in the workplace, so we may see their email use increase as they age into the full-time employee cohort.

Second, the survey was conducted in 2009 and we do not know if the percent of teens who email has increased or decreased over the past two years. We just completed a new teen survey to update these numbers, and those results will be out shortly.

Do you see anything on the horizon that suggests email has a limited life?

We get this “crystal ball” question quite a bit. It’s really impossible to say, since we never know what might come along in the digital world and turn everything upside down.

For now, what we can say is that for the ten years we have measured it, the trend line on email has been fairly flat, meaning there has been no significant increase or decrease in the percent of adult internet users who engage in the activity. So if there is a sudden decline in email use, that would be a major shift in US adults’ behavior and somewhat of a surprise.

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