Professor quits email for social media

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.

  1. See also my interview and discussion at Open Source . Com and comment and advice me on my blog

    Comment by Paul Jones on June 2, 2011 at 11:04 am

  2. This an interesting discussion, but — despite not using email — email serves at the backbone of all these networking platforms.

    You can't signup for LinkedIn or Facebook without an email address, and email serves at the primary notification most people who use these platforms.

    The proclamation that "email is dead" has gotten to the point that it's almost a cliché, but it's simply not true.

    Still, this is an interesting experiment.

    Comment by @StanOlshefski on June 2, 2011 at 12:39 pm

  3. My goal is to decenter email from the center of my communications.

    email have been a default identity signifier with very little benefit, in fact much more cost, in the end. With more OpenID, Twitter, Facebook, Google sign in alternatives available, I hardly ever have to rely on email to use new services. My sign on to Reese News here is one example of that.

    As to notifications, there are many better ways. I turned them all off.

    email may not be dead, but it smells that way.

    Comment by Paul Jones on June 2, 2011 at 2:29 pm

  4. Here's the link… for a slightly different take on #noemail

    Comment by Paul Jones on June 2, 2011 at 2:32 pm

  5. What a fantastic article! Thanks a lot for putting it together and for sharing these insights on what Paul Jones is about to embark on! Excellent stuff! While reading @Stan's comments I certainly agree that perhaps email is not going to die any time soon, since there are still some pretty good use cases for it (Calendaring and Scheduling and 1:1 Confidential, sensitive exchanges); but for the rest of the interactions there isn't a reason why social tools could be used. In fact, they can be used; I have relied on them for the last 4 years, and counting, and have help me fragment and diversify my Inbox to the point where instead of spending 2 to 3 hours per day just processing my mail it's not about 15 to 20 minutes per week; the rest of the time is invested in networking, connecting, collaborating and sharing in an open, public and transparent manner with my social networks, releasing and freeing up all of that knowledge that before was trapped in my Inbox.

    Not anymore! Also all of those notifications that @Stan mentions when signing up and working with social networking tools are there, indeed, but they are not really email, but BACN, which you can filter out and reduce the noise as well from them, like Twitter has done just recently.

    Essentially, all of this living "A World Without Email" is all about finding out better options of reaching out and working with other knowledge workers where open, public and transparent interactions are the norm, more than an exception. It's about smart work, about no longer being the bottleneck; about showing that while some may think "Knowledge is power", it's eventually "Knowledge *shared* is power" …

    Comment by Luis Suarez on June 2, 2011 at 2:46 pm

  6. I like the idea of what Paul is doing, and I hope it works.

    In a similar vein, I have stopped checking work voicemail. I'm reachable by many other ways: text, email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. I respond promptly, especially on Twitter and FB.

    The university's voicemail system is cumbersome, and the overwhelming majority of voicemails are from textbook publishers and other people trying to sell me something. I don't miss it at all, and I feel like I haven't missed a thing.

    Comment by abechtel1 on June 2, 2011 at 3:00 pm

  7. Not to completely disagree with Luis, who is my model and inspiration for much of this project, but email sucks (to use the technical term) for meeting scheduling. Shared calendars and/or voting sites like that link to calendars are much much better for that.

    Confidential? Skype. email isn't private nor is it usually encrypted in transit. Skype is always.

    +1 on Sharing the Wealth of Knowledge (once the official tag-line of now )

    Note that @StanOlchefski signed on here by Twitter not by email ;->

    Comment by Paul Jones on June 2, 2011 at 3:01 pm

  8. Abechtel1 – We turned off voice mail at ibiblio years back. A lot of us work remotely (thanks UNC HVAC folks) or just ignore the phone. Google voice will do a nice job of rerouting your msgs and translating them into an amusing simulacrum of English.

    I for most of the same time had an away message that instructed folks to contact me by messaging systems as you have. Ultimately, I disconnected the line.

    Note that Andy used his WordPress login to post his comment — no email involved.

    Comment by Paul Jones on June 2, 2011 at 3:30 pm

  9. I'm doing another experiment (that saves me $80/month) – - I quit my smartphone's voice plan 18 months ago and got a SIM card that does SMS only. My wife hated the idea at first but has since come around since she can always get a hold of me. I'm almost always in a Wi-Fi zone so I can usually use Skype if I have to make a voice call; if I'm not in a Wi-Fi zone, I reply with a text. GoogleVoice forwards calls to my Skype and office numbers. And, GoogleVoice forwards (poorly transcribed) text messages of the voicemail to my phone and email (sorry, I do use email). :)

    Despite the fact that I am not a fan of email and it does take so much time out of my day, I find that email is great for keeping records of conversations. When it comes time to recall those emails, I don't think the search features in Facebook are robust enough to convince me to leave email behind just yet. Also, there are things like attachments… and bosses…. etc.

    Good luck with the experiment, I look forward to reading your reflections on the experience when you're done.

    Comment by @MarcAlanSperber on June 2, 2011 at 5:40 pm

  10. I am not buying it. Facebook is a proprietary tool run by a company, same with Twitter. Email is a non – proprietary technology that is sometimes commercial and sometimes not.

    If one wants to give up all of their communications to one or two corporations than one can't expect to have much privacy. I myself wont toss all my chips in to a handful of companies that are growing a new and ever larger internet bubble.

    Comment by Matt on June 2, 2011 at 6:02 pm

  11. Hi Paul! LOL!! Thanks for following up! Actually, it's not disagreeing on a key point (Email *does* suck! hehe); what happens in the scenario of calendaring and scheduling is that in my corporate environment we do have diaries and calendars, like you could organise through Google Calendar, Doodle and the like, but all of those notifications are processed through "email" notifications that then get accepted or rejected into your agenda, so I still need to resort to it, at least, for work purposes. For the rest, is the one that nails it for me in that regard :)

    Welcome to the club! :-D

    Comment by Luis Suarez on June 2, 2011 at 6:32 pm

  12. So – any tips for how to deal with confidential student info being transmitted on non UNC servers?

    Comment by Tripp Tuttle on June 2, 2011 at 8:18 pm

  13. @Marc,
    You touched on what I'm concerned about most. I too keep records in Gmail where it's easy to search for them and I admit as bad a habit as it is I also use Gmail for keeping contact information. I should rewrite that sentence in the past tense ;->
    The four factors in technology adaption and maintenance are: Policy (your boss part and the pricing of voice plan), Social (what the other kids do), Psychological (your own needs and quirks andf habits) and the Technology itself. I'm hoping to get to better technical solutions by breaking my habits for starters. I haven't found exactly what I'm looking for but I think there should be a way to hyper-aggregate the various activity streams and to be able to search and archive.
    Part of this project is a quest for that solution.

    Comment by Paul Jones on June 2, 2011 at 10:06 pm

  14. Yes. Don't do it. That kind of stuff should be handles on secure connections other than email. email is far too leaky if you are serious about anything confidential and is unencrypted (usually. see note to Luis above).

    If you must transfer secure information, you want something like Skype. Skype is point to point and uses no intervening servers. In addition, all connections are encrypted by default.

    Want really secure message transfer? Write your message on a piece of paper. Make a Skype video connection. Hold the paper up to the camera. Then eat the paper.

    Comment by Paul Jones on June 2, 2011 at 10:10 pm

  15. See my discussion on The openness of email is highly questionable as is the lack of interoperability of Twitter and Facebook.

    Comment by Paul Jones on June 2, 2011 at 10:13 pm

  16. I agree with your point. Maybe email is morphing from a communication tool to a global identifier. I thought it was odd that Sheryl Sandberg got up there and declared email dead, yet you need your email address to join Facebook, and Facebook has now assigned everyone their own Facebook email address, as well as provide an email address to message in to groups. I'm not sure how you reconcile the email is dead statement with the heavy reliance on email to play in the system.

    In terms of what Paul is working towards, I do certainly applaud the risk in the forced migration of his fans, friends, colleagues and others to using other tools to get in touch with him. His stated goal is to "decenter email from the center of my communications." Unlike Sheryl Sandberg, Paul is not saying that email is "dead." He's saying that it's just lived beyond its use case for him alone. Maybe for others as well, but that's not his decision to make, no is he making that decision for anyone else but himself. I certainly admire the challenge he is bringing to this conventional tool that we've all gotten so used to. It's an excellent experiment in its simplicity, which requires nothing but a decision.

    Comment by djtonyz on June 3, 2011 at 7:50 am

  17. I don't know that you need email for "calendering and scheduling." You've got Plancast and Doodle now, which could easily take the place of Outlook Calendar or Google Calendar.

    Comment by djtonyz on June 3, 2011 at 7:52 am

  18. Can you turn off your mobile plan and use the data plan with Skype? I have, what i think, is a really great phone number that I want to keep. Is your phone number portable to Google Voice?

    Facebook is getting better at keeping threaded conversations. And, I find it's easier to search for a conversation with someone in my Facebook inbox by user name, then it is to do a search in my Gmail inbox.

    Comment by djtonyz on June 3, 2011 at 7:56 am

  19. Part 2 in Q&A format of my interview with Open Source .com is here

    Comment by Paul Jones on June 3, 2011 at 9:03 am

  20. Very true, but I work for IBM, and as such we rely on our very own calendaring and scheduling system, mainly to avoid creating additional trouble with confidential or sensitive materials, calls, meetings. For my external interactions I am on and GCalendar, for sure, but for work I still rely on email as the method of distribution for those calendar notices

    Comment by Luis Suarez on June 3, 2011 at 2:19 pm

  21. I accidentally gave up on voicemail! With so many channels of communication, I just found that I couldn't keep up…so people email or tweet me if they want to reach me quickly. The results: I've eliminated one channel…but it just forces the flow through different "pipes" – so is it really more efficient to abandon one form of communication. The same number of communications will likely come your way…just one less platform for responding.

    Comment by @krazykriz on June 3, 2011 at 3:46 pm

  22. Email was great back in the day, but there really has to be something better to replace it for some subset of the tasks it is shoehorned into taking on. Going off it cold turkey and exploring the edges of what else might substitute for it is a worthy task.

    Comment by Edward Vielmetti on June 3, 2011 at 9:51 pm

  23. Understood. There are still important use cases for email to send notifications in proprietary systems, where the that slide of the world is reliant on email in that way. I just wanted to point out that one could feasibly move off those platforms with the new tools. Maybe younger start-ups can experiment with new methods, as they don't require a wholesale shift in behavior when starting from scratch.

    Comment by djtonyz on June 3, 2011 at 10:00 pm

  24. I agree with Paul. At the end of the day, ISP's control the delivery of email, as it's through the ISP that email flows point to point. While it may not be proprietary, it can still be controlled at various points. Look at Spam Assasim and Spam Arrest as examples of the filters you can put on email.

    Comment by djtonyz on June 3, 2011 at 10:03 pm

  25. @MarcAlanSperber makes some interesting points – I archive a lot of work emails and use the search command often to find one that I need to re-read or get the attachment.

    I'm weary to allow Google to read all my email and listen to all my voicemail.

    Paul, what are you going to do about attachments? Use clouds? It seems media is promoting cloud use, but probably 50% or more of the files I want to include on an email I don't want to put on a private server. (I do have secure email, btw).

    Comment by Elton Raphe on June 4, 2011 at 8:55 pm

  26. Very happy with this article! Join our We Quit E-mailing movement on Facebook :)

    Comment by Kim Spinder on June 5, 2011 at 6:39 am

  27. Thanks, Kim. I've Liked WQE and look forward to more info from you and your pals in .NL

    Comment by Paul Jones on June 5, 2011 at 4:32 pm

  28. Anyone who is concerned with privacy and data security (and especially professors who are subject to university policies and state or federal laws respecting the privacy of students) should think twice about dropping e-mail. Confidential company messages on social media? I think not.

    Comment by Chris on June 6, 2011 at 11:51 am

  29. The assumption that email in any way is private and/or secure shows an unfamiliarity with the email related protocols, general implementations and common practice.

    On companies using social media — see Luis Suarez's experiences in IBM or any of Yammer's many customers.

    Comment by Paul Jones on June 6, 2011 at 2:13 pm

  30. Anyone who is concerned with privacy and data security (and especially professors who are subject to university policies and state or federal laws respecting the privacy of students) should think twice about dropping e-mail. Using anything but campus e-mail for student communications is definitely against my college's rules. As well, proprietary servers used by social media may be in other states or countries, hence subject to different legislation.

    Comment by Chris on June 6, 2011 at 2:30 pm

  31. The assumption that email in any way is private and/or secure shows an unfamiliarity with the email related protocols, general implementations and common practice.

    On companies using social media — see Luis Suarez's experiences in IBM or any of Yammer's many customers.

    Sorry about your college's rules. If those rules were to apply to paper, you couldn't use FedEx or UPS. If they were to apply to electronic voice then no telephones could be used. Frankly if such rules actually exist, they reflect only moral panic as regards to internet communications, not law nor common practice nor the limits of technology.

    Comment by @smalljones on June 6, 2011 at 3:23 pm

  32. Thanks for the follow-up! Indeed, that would be quite an interesting initiative, for sure! In fact, there is plenty of room for improvement on identifying use cases for a tighter integration between email and social networking tools. They could be helping each other much more than just trumping each other's efforts; hope it would eventually happen. It's a win-win situation not just for those ecosystems, but for ourselves as well! :)

    Comment by Luis Suarez on June 10, 2011 at 8:27 am

  33. Glad to read this post. I think about when I was first introduced to email almost 20 yrs. ago, and my supervisor at NYU asked me to email her on work matters, even thought my desk was outside her office. It allowed us to handle work matters via email, and when we met in person, we had time to talk about non-work items and became friends. That was before social media..and email overload. Now, I crave to handle work items via face, and not have the onslought of email-after-email. Go Paul!

    Comment by jane greenberg on June 10, 2011 at 2:57 pm

  34. Also of interest, given Jane's comment, Jon Weedon on RIP email: The Writing is on the Wall

    Nice chart of email vs social media (other than email)

    Comment by @smalljones on June 15, 2011 at 2:46 pm

  35. [...] you say email is a thing of the past?  Social media is here to stay?  Read this:  How exciting, another paradigm shift, a new form of communication.  From the wave of new [...]

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  36. Agree there are better substitutes for some of the things that e-mail has been used for and will be interested to see how this experiment turns out. However, a lot of this depends not on what you're doing, but on the circle of people you have significant dealings with. If most of your contacts are already comfortable with using the same alternative services as you for work, it'll obviously be feasible to drop e-mail. But if most of your contacts are still heavily reliant on e-mail, there's no way you can drop e-mail without complicating things for all parties involved. If I have to tell someone that in order to have regular communication with me, they need to get an account on a service that they otherwise don't use, it's a fail. I can't tell people to stop e-mailing me and start collaborating with me via Google Docs when 95% of the people I work with don't use it. And unless the people they work with are using it, too, there's little benefit to them to use it just to talk to me b/c it'd be in effect complicating their routine just for the sake of simplifying mine.

    Comment by John Zhu on June 21, 2011 at 10:45 am

  37. [...] read an interesting article here about a professor at UNC who has decided to stop using email for communicating. With the [...]

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  38. Here's the thing, John. Most people communicate today through a variety of channels. People are not as tied to email than they once where. In fact, communicating through Facebook or any channel where text is transferred over the web and displayed at the other end can be considered a form of e-mail. I would be willing to bet that most of the people you know could, today, actually get in touch with you through other forms of text communication, without using email as the primary channel.

    Comment by Tony Zeoli on June 23, 2011 at 4:35 pm

  39. Is there an update to this story? Would love to hear how the first year went!

    Comment by Sean on May 25, 2012 at 5:53 pm

  40. I found the one month update, but would love to hear how things went during the first year.

    Comment by Sean on May 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm