Facebook's Intergenerational Struggle With Gmail

Since Facebook unveiled its brand new email service last week, tech journalists have been pondering whether or not the @facebook.com email addresses will totally supplant the seemingly ubiquitous @gmail.com address in the coming months. Facebook's "Facebook Messages" --  which seamlessly combines text messages, Facebook's pre-existing chat client, and conventional email -- looks more likely to be a hit among the teenagers and other Millennials already ingratiated into the Facebook communications ecosystem. The Pew Internet and American Life Project examined the communication habits of America's youth to evaluate the extent to which Facebook would supplant other email services. Pew's Amanda Lenhart summarzied the bulk of the data:

In the report, we note that while email isn't used very much as a daily communication tool with friends, it is used, albeit less frequently, by most teens, and used mostly to talk to institutions, adults and others less reachable by text messaging, as well as when teens need to send longer and more complicated messages to a group. The data suggest that while email isn't used heavily by teens, it certainly hasn't disappeared, either.

Email is the least used of the communication forms examined. When compared with use in 2006, daily email use has declined slightly from 15% of internet users to 11% of internet users in 2009. Fully 41% of all teens say that they never use email when communicating with their peers outside of school. While not used often for informal peer interactions, email is used in more formal situations such as in school and by parents and other adults. This does not mean that it is seen in a positive light.

Email will survive against the Facebookization of the web so long as intergenerational or institutional communication remain dependent on conventional email: while we may not see a rapid transition to Facebook mail in the coming months, Facebook may become a dominant form of communication once Millennials take over positions of power in pre-existing institutions (or their own families). Think about it: reliance on one medium for communication requires you to consciously avoid (or unconsciously exclude) other networks (i.e. "Why on earth would I use MySpace? That doesn't make any sense."). The fact that you still use email to keep in touch with your mother or that awesome politics professor you had as an undergrad -- even if that usage is cumbersome or done begrudgingly -- means that you're less likely to fall into the mentality of a Facebook-only society. Hence, a full transition to Facebook would take several generations of increasingly Facebook-dependent youth.

If Facebook will kill Gmail (or email in general), it's likely to be part of a lengthy paradigm shift rather than a rapid transition to a new medium. Should that be the case, who knows what new social network will emerge in the next 10 or 20 years to challenge both Facebook and Gmail as the premier medium for communication?

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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