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Is email past it and can chat fix the problem?

Over the past year there have been thousands of articles written on the changing role of communication in the building of your community online with a tool like Gitter, or communicating in the workplace with the likes of Slack, Hipchat and more.

When we talk about direct online communication one of the first tools that springs to mind for most is email. After all, in a busy workplace, most of us receive around 120 a day and in many offices, the telephone as a means of communication is all but obsolete.

The Death of Email has been greatly exaggerated

There are over 4.1 billion email accounts (and growing) and with 72 per cent of US adults admitting to sending emails via a smartphone, the communication protocol has not only continued its dominance on desktop, but has switched into the modern mobile ecosystem too.

Email is over 40 years old now and has been in common usage for half that time, but it was never built to be a cure all for our communication needs, to usurp or negate all other forms of communication.

In fact it serves a very specific purpose: it was invented to allow text based messages to be sent from one person to another, much like the Telegram over 100 years before. Over the years there have been innovations - attachments, threading, spam filtering etc, yet email has essentially stayed the same for four decades. Email won’t be able to deliver forever.

Herein lies the problem. Email may endure as the most common communication format, but the pace of life has moved on and we often need to to communicate more rapidly, and in short bursts, as well as creating and editing on the fly, not with sequential iterations.

Can chat do context and content?

Aforementioned platforms like Slack, Hipchat, Skype and of course Gitter have all taken steps to nurture this more dynamic and direct way of communicating, though not one of them has fully replaced email and my belief is that they shouldn’t aim to.

Chat encourages a style of communication that isn't always concise or definitive. There's often no subject, rather a stream of conversation, which means that anyone coming into the conversation mid-way will often find themselves out of the loop. Finding context is currently easier in email and pulling content out of chat isn’t intuitive and as such, information is easily lost. However, entering a chatroom dedicated to a very specific topic still allows users to find conversations that are the most relevant to people's interests and work lives.

One of the primary functions of the web and search engines is looking for answers to questions you’re looking for. How many times have you googled “How much baking soda should I put into chocolate-chip cookies?” or “How do I speed up my laptop?”. These sort of questions are a primary method using today’s modern web based technology. Moreover, sites like Stack Overflow are consistently so popular among developers for a reason they provide fast easy answers.

Communication tools would do well to learn from this very old pillar of the web, so I expect in 2016 to see a lot more of a move to this form of easily indexable searching and the ability to create more structure inside communication tools. In this way chat will provide context and usefulness in the form of an information repository.

I don’t think we'll ever see a day where email isn’t part of our communication, however I do think that the tools we use to communicate will continue to evolve and a natural ‘unbundling’ will occur. It’s already started, as the recent proliferation of messaging apps in the workplace shows.

We are heading into a future where chat and email can coexist, but with specific use cases. Email is great for structured conversations with set topics and outcomes, whereas short-form messaging such as chat can provide for a more fluid, conversational experience.

Chat as a way of building communities

We also believe chat builds a sense of community better, and we’re seeing technical workers in our field for example go on to create work for themselves through chat. Groups may well end up doing meet-ups in the ‘real world’, or job openings occur, and many people are helping others learn to code. It’s in the nature of chat that people’s personalities come through more, as the conversation tends to be more natural and open.

Chat is morphing into a form of networking, and we may well see people use these platforms in the same way they might have done using LinkedIn say five years ago.

This is especially true of younger users, prospective professional developers who are at or pre-university make really useful connections using chat services. They are able to put across original ideas and projects that can really propel their careers. Indeed for some, chat and the connections made on platforms means they can do away with the idea of a CV - not need to worry about applying for a job when you’ve already proved yourself in the community. Other community members recognise this and are happy to employ them.

There will of course continue to be innovations that bring email and chat closer together, be they iterations of current tools, clients for existing protocols or something brand new. We are in exciting times for communication, however don’t throw out your email just yet!

Mike Bartlett, CEO, Gitter

Image source: Shutterstock/Peshkova