Social media is not killing email – it is reinforcing it, according to Jeff Bonforte, Yahoo’s senior vice president of communications products.
For years, people have been predicting the death of email, amid the growth of social media and reports that millennials are shunning “outdated” communication methods in favour of instant messaging apps likeWhatsApp and Snapchat, but the trusty email is still very much with us.
This is partly due to the fact that email is standards-based, so users can keep multiple accounts and use different clients over time, whereas anything you do on a social network belongs to the social network, and if the company goes bust or you decide to leave, you lose your data.
Many modern web services also rely on email to provide identity verification and promote their services, according to Jeff Bonforte, Yahoo’s senior vice president of communications products.
“Without email Facebook would fall apart, Twitter would fall apart. Their usage would go down so fast that they would almost cease to exist,” he said.
“Facebook is the number one email sender in the world, and there’s a reason; they send email because without it people don’t remember to go back to Facebook every day. So although our perception is that all these services are unbelievably sticky, it’s actually email that makes them sticky.”
Email is still the primary method of identification online. Most web services ask users to sign in using an email address and password, and this means that even people who do not use email are compelled to have an account – just as most broadband users are still compelled to have a landline.
Some services like WhatsApp are trying to move away from this, using the mobile phone number as a form of identification rather than email, but Mr Bonforte claims that email is still more reliable.
“Phone numbers are promiscuous, meaning that a phone number can be re-owned very easily without anyone knowing, so it’s not the best user indicator for identity, whereas email is the most secure identity platform in the world. It’s the base platform behind all other identity platforms,” he said.
Email also allows users to create accounts on the fly. The downside of this is spam, because anyone can create an email account pretending to be someone they’re not, but as social networks increasingly push people to use their true identities, email provides a way to preserve their anonymity.
Unlike some webmail providers, Yahoo does not consider email to be in competition with social media. Yahoo Mail integrates with Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, allowing its in-built search engine to scrape information from public accounts and add this to its contact database.
For example, by linking a LinkedIn account with an email contact in Yahoo Mail, that contact’s LinkedIn profile picture will appear on every email you receive from them, along with other key information from their LinkedIn account.
“Gmail did something similar [with Google+], but they did it as a Gmail-only service, which sort of limited its appeal,” said Mr Bonforte.
“That’s another advantage of being Yahoo; we aren’t enemies with everyone, we’re friends with everyone, whereas most in the inbox space have positioned themselves to be a competitor to all the social networks, so there’s a lot of animosity there.”
Responding to the notion that people – especially young people – dislike email, Mr Bonforte admitted that society’s perception of what is possible in the inbox has become stuck. Email was originally built as a one-to-one messaging service, and everything from the way links are handled to identity to search is still very rudimentary.
“Apparently you can be the world’s greatest search engine and you still don’t know how to search an inbox. So there are so many things that are inherently wrong, but our expectations are very low for our inboxes,” he said.
Over the past few years, Mr Bonforte and his team have been trying to reinvent the inbox, integrating machine-learning technology from Xobni, the company that Yahoo acquired for an undisclosed sum in 2013, and introducing social media integrations to make search more intuitive.
They have also been doing a lot of work to improve the Yahoo Mail experience on mobile. Most people still use the default mail client to their phone to access their emails, but Mr Bonforte believes that those days will soon be over, as proprietary clients provide better security, better search, and higher personalisation.
He said that, ultimately, he hopes to get to a point where email users can just type three or four characters into their email search bar and find what they need from deep within the bowels of their inbox, removing the need for folders and triage.
“In the past, the user had to understand how to formulate searches in boolean expressions. It’s actually the way most mail services work today except for Yahoo. We understand why people search, how they search,” he said.
“I measure search’s success by how many folders people use or how many things they do to administer their inbox, how much triaging they do. In a perfect world, the user will apply zero triaging.”