Professor quits email for social media

Jun. 2, 2011 12:02 am

There are a number of ways to contact Paul Jones. You can chat with him via his blog, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and a host of other online tools. Email, however, is no longer one of them.

Jones, a clinical associate professor in the School of Information and Library Science and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, told attendees at UNC’s BarCamp that he’s abandoned email — an antiquated application whose time is up, tech insiders say.

“I spent 30 years investing in email,” Jones said. “The undergrads I teach use everything but email. Journalists use Twitter. You can use anything else to get in touch with me — text messages, AIM, G-chat, Facebook, Facebook chat … but I was investing too much into email and getting little back.”

While Jones’ announcement shocked some friends and colleagues, particularly baby boomers, his transition to other communication platforms isn’t part of a new phenomenon. Slate and Wired magazines foretold the death of email in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg classified email as passe during a 2009 Nielsen Consumer 360 conference before launching into a pitch for her company’s ability to connect people across continents, interests and generations.

“In consumer technology, if you want to know what people like us will be doing tomorrow, you look at what teenagers are doing today,” Sandberg said, citing research findings that only 11 percent of U.S. teens use email daily.

People like Sandberg and Louis Suarez, one of Jones’ “Tweeps,” (the two connected via Twitter) are giving the public access to their Google calendars to eliminate back-and-forth emails about scheduling, relying on texts and tweets to communicate urgent messages, and collaborating on projects via Google Docs. Jones says these leaders are also video-chatting with friends via Skype and using Doodle, an online scheduling tool, to set up meetings.

Suarez, an IBM social software executive who writes a knowledge-management blog about “thinking outside of the box,” started weaning himself off email three years ago. 

“You can be as productive as ever (if not more!),” Suarez wrote in one blog entry chronicling his journey. “Email is just one more of the options we have out there, not the only one,” he wrote.

Not everyone is ready to give up on email, though. Data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project’s Generations 2010 survey shows that between 90 and 100 percent of among Americans aged 18 to 73 still use email.

Anne Klinefelter, an associate professor of law at UNC, is among that number. She won’t be jumping ship with Jones.

“I’m not sure how I’m going to contact him. I’m not on Twitter, I’m not on Facebook, but I love being in touch with Paul,” she said. “Maybe we’ll have to get together for coffee.”

Klinefelter declined to offer legal analysis on the implications of using social media to communicate with students, but said individuals should consider issues such as the exchange of information covered by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), before abandoning email in favor of social media for daily communication.

For professors, that means sticking to traditional means — like face-to-face conversation — to discuss grades. Health professionals would be wise to avoid using social media to communicate patient information as well.

Her sticking point on using social media to communicate with others isn’t a legal matter — it’s personal.

“I’m a holdout for privacy reasons,” she said.

Klinefelter says she’s not willing to share some of the personal information that Facebook and other social media sites ask for during the registration process.

“There’s huge pressure professionally and socially to join … but I don’t have time,” she said. She added that she’d be more likely (albeit grudgingly) to use Twitter to connect with others in the future, but for now, email will do just fine.

One of Jones’ goals is to maximize all the available channels to demonstrate alternative uses for promoting communication. Jones, who created, an open-source site for sharing intellectual property, argues that email is not the best technology for arranging meetings or working together on group projects. It’s just a convenient, institutionalized technology people are used to, he said. Now it’s time for us to look elsewhere to organize our messages and lives, he said.

Aggregation of chat, calendar, document-management and social-networking tools will be the the “it” trend for companies to capitalize on, Jones said.

Media giant Google launched and scrubbed its first attempt to pull those functions together with Google Wave, a platform that allowed users to converse and collaborate on documents in real time.

“Google Wave was an example of integrating activity streams that didn’t work,” he said. “It was good for a small group of tightly knit people.”

Jones said he isn’t worried that he’ll miss department-wide announcements (“They post them all the time”), though he acknowledges his approach may completely fall flat.

Associate Provost and University Librarian Sarah Michalak sounded optimistic about Jones’ experiment.

“Paul was one of the first people who recognized the value and really the brilliance of email and encouraged everyone to get started,” she said. “His vision is always beyond the horizon … I can’t wait to see what particular things in his mind have the potential to substitute for email.”

Michalak said her peers recognize that something will soon supplant the use of email, particularly among undergraduates.

“It’s just not clear whether there will be one single tool that will replace email,” she said. Jones’ substitutes include about 12 different means of contact.

“It’s still a pretty crowded arena,” Michalak said. “I’m not ready to make the change, but I’m grateful that Paul is, and that there’s someone who’s trying this.”

Jones said his experiment won’t be permanent, but he’s learned that innovation comes through taking risks. This time, he’ll watch how the individuals he communicates with choose to get in touch with him, and adapt his strategy accordingly.

“I may have to cry uncle. I may have to create a white list for people who just can’t get it,” he said.

But everyone else will have to learn — and right away. Jones stopped taking emails on Wednesday.