Tuesday Nov 06, 2007

Why Twitter won't delete Email

Because it isn't designed to be Email 2.0.

On a recent debate titled "E-mail Faces Deletion" hosted by BusinessWeek, Robert Scoble suggests that Twitter could overtake Email as the leading business communications tool. I read it a few weeks ago but I wasn't on Twitter so I didn't feel qualified to comment. Since then, I've become more familiar with Twitter and found a few of his arguments flawed.

  1. Knowledge retention. While policy varies from country to country, publicly-traded companies and even SMB who don't host their own Email nowadays typically keep Email on the server side and have retention policies (for compliance reasons) which determine how data of former employees is retained and transferred to replacements.
  2. Spam problem. Twitter doesn't suffer from it because users decide who they wish to follow or unfollow. This method is similar to whitelisting and blacklisting and only works in Twitter because it is a walled communication platform and you don't give out your Twitter username as you would give out Email address (on the last page of your presentation, when you fill out online forms, to merchants and service providers, etc).
  3. What happens in Twitter, stays in Twitter. You can depend on Twitter for as long as it is around. Possibly the best way to explain Twitter to non-technical people is that it is a news broadcasting system in which any member can be a broadcaster. This is very appealing to consumers but not so to corporations. For various reasons, good or bad, internal businesses communication most often flow in a controlled and structured manner rather than a broadcasting model.
  4. Twitter lets you filter what others are saying. For example, when Google launched the Open Handset Alliance yesterday, also known as Android, you can do "track android" in Twitter and it'll automatically direct every Twitter message (called "tweet") containing that keyword to you. The upside is that you get to tap into a global community and track actions and thoughts on that topic in near real-time, but the downside is that the signal-to-noise ratio can be very low because everyone can be a broadcaster.

Furthermore, Twitter has a few design choices that make it unsuitable for business use:

  1. Messages are limited to 160 characters.
  2. No support for attachments.
  3. Can't define scope of distribution.
  4. No verification of status. Companies (especially large ones) may wish to cut its tie with terminated employees and it's not clear how Twitter can handle that.

That being said, is Email perfect as a business communication tool? Absolutely not. It's been around for 25 years and I'm confident it'll stick around for another 25 years, but if its weaknesses are not addressed and improvements are not made in time then I doubt it'll maintain its usefulness. Although it's not fair to compare Email with Twitter, there is a few things Email can learn from Twitter:

  1. Needs stronger sender identification. When an Email claims it was sent by Aunt Betty, it must truly came from her and no one else. Twitter's solution is to require account registration and username/password. Systems such as SPF and DomainKeys go so far as to ensure domain-level authenticity, but we need something that goes farther to sender-level.
  2. Needs an API. Twitter offers an API so that users and other developers can discover new ways to use Twitter. Email doesn't have an API, it has RFCs written by lots of people over many years to ensure interoperability, but its fundamentals are largely unchanged even though the rest of the world has progressed. I say it's time for an update, a rethink on modern and future requirements, similar to what ZFS did to filesystem. Excuse the overuse but we need an "Email 2.0".
  3. Needs Permalink. A permalink is basically a fixed index to a web resource to which others link or respond. The vast majority of Email is either an inquiry for response or a response to another inquiry. If every Email message you write has a permalink, then it's a lot easier to track or search when others respond or add value to it.
  4. Follow & track. Once all of the above are in place, these become trivial. In fact, all kinds of new possibilities open up.

Do you think an old dog can learn new tricks? It's only limited by our imagination and drive. Consider how Google uses Email for project management (it's a rather long story, just search for "project management" when the page loads).


I currently live in San Francisco Bay Area. For the past seven years, I have been designing and building messaging solutions for Sun.


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