Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Web Focus: Must Email Die?

Brian Kelly recently gave a talk on this subject at the Internet Librarian International 2005 conference. In this article he expands on the talk and revisits the question as to whether email really should disappear.

The ILI 2005 Conference

The ILI (Internet Librarian International) 2005 Conference [1], the seventh in the series, was held in the Copthorne Tara Hotel, London over 10-11 September 2005. This conference is aimed at information professionals and librarians who are using, developing and implementing Internet, Intranet and Web-based services in their daily work.

One of the main themes at the conference explored at the conference was the potential for technologies such as Blogs and Wikis within a library context. I took part in the opening session on this theme and explored the potential for several new technologies and associated strategies.

Email Must Die!

Following the opening keynote presentation, the conference split into three parallel tracks. I took part in Track A on Blogs, Wikis, and Collaboration Tools. The other speakers in this track were Michael Stephens, St. Joseph County Public Library, Indiana, USA, who spoke on “Tools for Digital Collaboration” [2] and Aaron Schmidt, Reference Librarian, Thomas Ford Memorial Library, Illinois, USA, speaking on “Digital Tools for Collaboration” [3] and who described the potential of applications such as Flickr and del.ico.us.

photo (52KB) : Michael Stephens, Brian Kelly and Aaron Schmidt, speakers in the opening track

Michael Stephens, Brian Kelly and Aaron Schmidt, speakers in the opening track.

Following these two presentations which outlined the potential of several areas of collaborative Web-based networked applications, I gave a presentation entitled “Email Must Die!” [4]. This provocatively titled presentation was intended to challenge the notion which may be felt by some that use of such new collaborative technologies will be restricted to well-funded organisations in the US or the technology enthusiasts. The talk gave a critique of email and outlined areas in which new collaborative technologies may provide a better alternative to email or other established working practices. In the talk I pointed out that many of the tools are easy to use, often, in the case of open source applications, with no licence costs to act as a barrier to their use. I then outlined a number of areas in which such technologies could be used.

This article expands on the ideas given in the talk.

A Critique of Email

Email has, of course, proved to be an essential tool for use within the Higher Education sector, especially for those involved in the development and provision of networked services. Email has developed from providing a simple mechanism for communication between two people with the widespread use of emailing lists and the ability to send attachments.

Sadly the effectiveness of email seems to have decreased with its more widespread usage. Many users treat email as an instant response technology, resulting in subject lines which are unhelpful when subsequently (perhaps much later) trying to find a relevant message: The poor use of metadata with email can also be a barrier to managing messages. Despite the provision of message filtering rules in many email clients, such management capabilities do not appear to be widely deployed - and are always liable to fail when systems are not correctly configured (ever see “On holiday” messages sent to mailing lists?). Such limitations have led to the argument that “E-mail is where knowledge goes to die” [5].

The majority of users of email will have, of course, have received spam. Spam - or unsolicited commercial email (UCE) as it is also known - is probably the most annoying aspect for email users today, hindering the productivity of email users.

A Range of Options

Although the limitations of email are widely recognised, it should be acknowledged that email does have advantages: users are familiar with email and email clients, and email is widely used to support business processes.

However we should be looking at areas in which other technologies may provide a more effective solution to our business processes than email or other existing solutions. I will now outline a number of relevant collaborative technologies and discuss areas in which their use may be applicable.

Instant Messaging

Instant messaging (IM) technologies will be familiar to many. IM appears to be a cult fashion for many young people, and its use is growing with the increasing uptake of broadband in homes. Organisations are under pressure to provide instant messaging capabilities: some provide a range of IM tools (e.g. the University of Liverpool [6]) while others have concerns over the additional pressures this may place on scarce PC equipment, support implications, etc.

Although there are legitimate issues regarding the provision and management of such technologies, instant messaging can provide a useful tool for users. The JISC-funded QA Focus Project, provided by UKOLN, based at the University of Bath and AHDS, based at King’s College London, made use of instant messaging for formal meetings and in a more informal way. In order to ensure effective use was made of this form of workshop a policy on instant messaging was produced [7] and a case study summarised the background to this approach [8].

Instant messaging can also be used in environments in which email would be inapplicable. For example, during the session at the ILI conference, instant messaging was used between myself and a member of the audience. This enabled me to be reminded of issues I could use shortly before I gave my talk.

Potential concerns regarding use of instant messaging include distractions such as beeps as colleagues arrive and leave instant messaging environments and archiving of discussions held using instant messaging technologies. Simple solutions to such concerns include familiarising oneself with the capabilities of the applications, in order to disable sounds and archive messages - or simply to make use of the tools in contexts in which such issues are not relevant. Such issues are mentioned in the QA Focus briefing document Using Instant Messaging Software [9].


A significant use of email is for making announcements. There will be many occasions in which providing news feeds using RSS (Really Simple Syndication / RDF Site Summary) will provide advantages over use of RSS. Use of RSS should allow the end-user greater flexibility in finding, managing and processing such announcements. If you enjoy receiving news from the BBC, rather than subscribing to a BCC email service you may find that subscribing to a BBC RSS news feed provides greater flexibility in managing the information. With many RSS readers you can choose how often to process new RSS items and how the information should be displayed. If you wish, you can receive your RSS news feed within your email client - email clients such as Mozilla Thunderbird provide RSS viewers as standard [10] and RSS extensions for Microsoft Outlook are available [11] [12]. An advantage with this approach is that you do not have to wade though out-of-date news when you return from holiday.

It should also be noted that email and RSS need not be regarded as isolated technologies. A number of mailing lists applications, such as YahooGroups, provide RSS feeds of the archives of the lists. An example of use of the Sage RSS viewer to view summaries of messages in the rss-dev YahooGroups list [13] is shown in Figure 2.

screenshot (47KB) : Viewing an RSS Feed from a YahooGroups Mailing List

Viewing an RSS Feed from a YahooGroups Mailing List

RSS feeds are available for the JISCMail archives, but unfortunately the content of mail messages is not syndicated, only the address of the messages, which means that the approach described above cannot be used for JISCMail archives.


Readers of this article will, no doubt, be familiar with Blogs. But how do Blogs relate to use of email? We can illustrate some of the possible benefits by searching for reports on the ILI 2005 conference. Using Google to search for “ILI 2005” and “ILI2005” we find that, excluding results related to the main ILI 2005 conference Web site, many of the search results come from trip reports published in Blogs by speakers and delegates at the conference [14], [15], [16], [17] [18]. For speakers at such conferences, who typically have a remit to maximise exposure to their ideas, it would seem that use of Blogs to gain exposure is likely to be more effective than sending reports to mailing lists (of course, the information could be transmitted over both applications).


A Wiki is a collaborative Web-based authoring environment [119]. Wikis aim to be easy to use, requiring no special software to be installed and providing a simple markup language which is easier to use than HTML.

I have been using Wikis for some time now. One area of use is when collaborating with co-authors on a paper or proposal. In the past this would typically involve passing, for example, a Microsoft Word document around the co-authors. Use of the Wiki helps to avoid many of the problems associated with this process, such as multiple copies of the file being distributed, different ways of using the application, etc.

I have also used Wikis in the planning of events. Again rather than having to search across email messages, a Wiki is used in conjunction with email lists. Email is used to gain consensus on ideas; once this has been obtained the Wiki allows members of the event team to collaborate on the development of relevant documents.

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)

The Skype Internet telephony application [20] is another technology which I use in a number of ways. Skype has been used at several events recently (including the EUNIS 2005 conference and the Institutional Web Management Workshop 2005) to allow remote participants to listen in to talks. Skype is also being used with co-authors of papers to discuss ideas in a more interactive fashion than is possible when using email. The audio discussion is complemented by use of Skype’s instant messaging capabilities for purposes such as sharing URLs.

Must Email Die?

So should email disappear? The answer is, of course, no. Email will continue to have a role to play in many areas. However there will be areas in which alternative approaches may have advantages over email. Organisations should ensure that they are prepared to have an open mind regarding the potential of new technologies, particularly in areas in which existing practices are well established. The technology should not, however, by forced upon the user community, but instead provide a more effective solution for its users.

It should be noted, however, that in some cases the user community may be ahead of the service providers. A survey on policies on the use of instant messaging (IM) was carried out on a UCISA mailing list some time ago. One institution stated that “IM … is ‘here to stay’ - an ‘unstoppable tide’. Seen as part of youth culture, along with … SMS” whilst another commented that “Students will arrive familiar with, and expecting to .. use such tools. Email seen by younger people to be ‘boring’, ‘full of spam’, IM and SMS immediacy preferred.” [21]

From this perspective the question to be addressed could be “will email die?” rather than “should email die?” From these comments it would appear that a significant part of our user community regard email in a similar fashion to how many long-standing Internet users may regard Usenet News!

However a danger with end-users driving such technological innovation is that issues such as interoperability, support, records management, etc. may be ignored. These are important issues and so institutions will need to ensure that such considerations are being addressed.


  1. Internet Librarian International (ILI) 2005 Conference, 10-11 October 2005 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue28/web-focus/
  2. Tools for Digital Collaboration, M. Stephens, ILI 2005 Conference http://www.tametheweb.com/presentations/ToolsMS.pdf
  3. Digital Tools for Collaboration, A. Schmidt, ILI 2005 Conference http://www.walkingpaper.org/presentation/tools/
  4. Email Must Die!, B. Kelly, ILI 2005 Conference http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/web-focus/events/conferences/ili-2005/talk-1/
  5. e-mail is where knowledge goes to die, Transforming Information into Knowledge at the Portal, Bill French, 22 April 2000 http://myst-technology.com/mysmartchannels/public/item/5994
  6. Instant Messenger FAQs, Computing Service Department, University of Liverpool http://www.liv.ac.uk/CSD/helpdesk/faqs/instant/
  7. Policy on Instant Messaging, QA Focus policy document, UKOLN http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/qa-focus/qa/policies/instant-messaging/
  8. Implementing a Communications Infrastructure, QA Focus case study no. 12, UKOLN http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/qa-focus/documents/case-studies/case-study-12/
  9. Using Instant Messaging Software, QA Focus briefing document no. 56, UKOLN http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/qa-focus/documents/briefings/briefing-56/
  10. Thunderbird, Mozilla http://www.mozilla.org/products/thunderbird/
  11. Newsgator Business http://www.newsgator.com/business.aspx
  12. Read RSS in Outlook, intraVnews http://www.intravnews.com/
  13. rss-dev, YahooGroups http://groups.yahoo.com/group/rss-dev/
  14. List of Bloggers, Internet Librarian International 2005 Unofficial Wiki http://ili2005.xwiki.com/xwiki/bin/view/Main/Bloggers
  15. ILI 2005, Science Library Pad http://scilib.typepad.com/science_library_pad/ili2005/
  16. Collaboration Tools Session at ILI2005, Marydee Ojala http://www.onlineinsider.net/2005/10/collaboration-tools-session-at-ili2005.html
  17. Email Must Die! Karen Blakeman http://www.rba.co.uk/rss/2005/10/email-must-die.html
  18. ILI2005: Emailen er død…, Internetsøgning, (in Danish) http://erikhoy.blogspot.com/2005/10/ili2005-emailen-er-dd-lad-os-begrave.html
  19. An Introduction to Wikis, QA Focus briefing document no. 78, UKOLN http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/qa-focus/documents/briefings/briefing-78/
  20. An Introduction to Audio and Video Communication Tools, QA Focus briefing document no. 79, UKOLN http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/qa-focus/documents/briefings/briefing-79/
  21. Unpublished report, University of Edinburgh.

Author Details

Brian Kelly
UK Web Focus
University of Bath

Email: b.kelly@ukoln.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/

Return to top