×

Mossberg: Yes, you’ve still got mail

In 1998, it was possible to make a big-screen romantic comedy about email. Yep, email — the same medium we often think of now as boring and even annoying. Back then, it was perfectly plausible that two attractive characters played by two attractive movie stars (Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan) could fall in love over AOL email and each be thrilled to hear the service's iconic, cheerful audio alert: "You've got mail." That was also the name of the film, which garnered a respectable 73 percent from top critics on Rotten Tomatoes. The trailer feels like a time machine now.

Of course, today, such digital romance would take place using some combination of Tinder, texting and maybe Snapchat (though the two leads seem too old to fit the Snapchat target demo, so maybe iMessage and FaceTime). Email would never be considered a common path to love, even one believable enough for a movie.

Email is a senior citizen. It's been around since at least the 1960s in one form or another. In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a hot competition among consumer email services like Yahoo Mail, Hotmail and Gmail.

Now, young people shun email as much as possible. Even for adults, answering an email rarely seems urgent, and that red counter of unread emails often climbs into the thousands.

A conversation in the talk bubbles of a messaging service, or on Slack, Twitter or Facebook, demands — and receives — faster action.

I was an early user of AOL, so early I didn't even have a number after my user name. For me, email was once vital, both for personal and business uses. But, like a lot of you reading this, if my phone or laptop today happily called out "You've got mail," I'd be tempted to smash it. Today's email competition is all about mobile apps that help you manage the email mess with minimum hassle.

The undead walk among us

Still, despite all signs to the contrary — and many predictions — email is not dead. In fact, some analyses suggest that it's growing. Few people can afford to be without it. It hasn't expired; it has morphed.

There are lots of reasons email persists, even as faster and simpler forms of communication proliferate and your personal communications likely have mostly migrated elsewhere. But one big one is that new types of media channels rarely totally kill off old ones, even though everyone predicts they will. The old ones just adapt and change.

Back in the day, television was supposed to kill off radio, but radio gradually saved itself by dropping the programming TV did better (like dramas and variety shows) and starting to focus on playing hit songs and hosting political and sports talk shows.

I think something similar is going on with email. Once the king of digital discourse, email has surely been dethroned by an army of alternatives: Vast and numerous messaging services; photo- and video-oriented sharing on social networks or the photo apps of Apple and Google; business tools like Slack.

I get the latest pictures of my granddaughter through iCloud photo sharing. I get the latest discussions of how we plan to cover stories on The Verge or Recode through Slack. My editor and I collaboratively edit my stories inside Google Docs. Ten years ago, all those things would have been done via email. Back then, when a reader wanted to tell me I was an idiot (or worse) for something I wrote, I got an email. Now, they tell me on Twitter.

Despite all that, however, chances are your communications from businesses — like banks, insurers, lawyers, accountants and utility companies — are still sent via email. Even if they use Slack or some similar internal chat-like tool, many employers also still send important personnel announcements and policy statements via email, presumably for legal reasons or to ensure everyone gets them.

And, of course, then there's marketing of all kinds, including spam. For this kind of stuff, email has long been the digital channel of choice, and, as other kinds of messages migrate away, marketing looms even larger in your inbox. It's this stuff that has helped simultaneously prop up email and turn people off from it. You're unlikely to see an unwanted ad for airline mile deals in your iMessage or Facebook Messenger threads, but you're virtually certain to see one in your email inbox.

Whole companies are built around this marketing business. They sell their services to other businesses or political groups and devise ways to get around filters.

It's bad in so many ways

Like radio, email isn't dying, it's just changing. Over the past decade or so it's become much more like postal mail. It's not the place you expect to find a greeting from a friend or even a timely update from a professional colleague. Instead, it's a mix of junk mail you hate and discard, plus bills and missives from businesses you also hate but can't discard. And the junk mail is the bulk of it.

It's also outright dangerous. Email remains a key vector for network attacks by criminals, hostile states and surveillance agencies. It's a major way bad actors get unsuspecting people to click on links or images or attachments that hide malware that can penetrate networks and steal identities.

Like paper mail, email also induces guilt, piling up and up until you can find the time and will to pick through to see what you might need or want. Still, it's hard to just stop using it altogether.

Of course, there are always exceptions that prove the rule — for instance, newsletters and news or sports alerts you subscribed to, actually want and find interesting. I check email for several of those and skim or read them.

Bottom line

By and large, email is now a generally unpleasant, often untrustworthy and sometimes literally perilous experience that deserves less and less of our time and attention. But it's not dead, and I don't expect it to disappear anytime soon. Just be wary of it.

Remember "You've Got Mail"? The whole time the Tom Hanks character was email-wooing the Meg Ryan character, he was building a giant chain bookstore that put her cozy neighborhood bookshop out of business.

Consider yourself warned.

By Walt Mossberg, Re/code.net.

CNBC's parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode's parent Vox, and the companies have a content-sharing arrangement.