CHAPEL HILL — If you send an email to Paul Jones, you won’t hear back from the UNC-Chapel Hill professor. You will, however, receive an automated reply that could only have come from him.
“Good Bye Email, I’m divesting,” reads the subject line. The message says that Jones gave up email on June 1, 2011, and goes on to suggest more than a dozen different ways to contact him: through Facebook, Twitter, Google +, Gtalk, AIM, Skype, LinkedIn, even YouTube. Jones will explain his decision to forgo email in detail at N.C. State University on Thursday, in a talk called, “Why you could/should/must use better ways of communicating than email!”
Going email-free is part of a grand experiment that Jones, who oversees UNC’s Ibiblio.org online archive, decided to undertake after analyzing all his communication methods. He concluded that email took the most time and yielded the least useful communication, especially for those using mobile phones as much as computers. So he quit.
None of his UNC peers are convinced enough to follow his lead, at least not yet, and one even derided Jones’ email divestiture as “false performance art.” But for those struggling with the time drain of email, the idea is tantalizing. Jones recalls a conversation he had with outgoing UNC chancellor Holden Thorp.
“Holden told me, ‘I wish I could do no email,’ and that was a year ago,” Jones says. “Bet he really wishes that now.”
Jones insists he’s not missing a thing being email-free. And not only is he gone, he’s not coming back.
“My feeling is that everybody should use things collaboratively,” Jones says. “It seems like email is used to do all the wrong things, when there are lots of ways to do the right things. We all just got in the habit of it, and it’s frankly just bad technology – and the social part is not good, either. Humans just don’t use it right. I want communication to be fast, terse, mobile, synchronous and highly interactive, none of which email is. There are 20 or 30 better and more amusing ways to communicate.”
There is considerable irony in Jones encouraging everyone to throw off their email shackles, since he played a big part in making it so pervasive. Thirty years ago, Jones not only helped write the code for UNC’s first campus-wide email system, he also led efforts to get everyone to use it.
But now, between spam and the way people misuse it (“When Buddha said, ‘No attachments,’ I’m pretty sure he was talking about email,” Jones quips), he is convinced that email is beyond saving. Even when it’s from someone he wants to hear from, Jones derides email as the least-effective way to communicate, breaking down into “formal exchanges of diplomatic papers,” or talking points.
Besides, Jones believes that the seeds of something better are already out there for most people.
“Most of the people I converted to email back then are now 50 and older and they say they don’t want to learn anything new,” Jones says. “And they’re already using Skype with their grandkids, or Facebook or Tumblr to share photos. You ask if they text: ‘Yeah, to my children, but nobody else.’ Even the people who are most resistant, they’ve compartmentalized it. People are already doing this in their private lives, they hardly send email. So let’s do it elsewhere, too.”
Whatever its flaws, however, email won’t be going away in the near future. According to the Pew Research Center, email is tied with search engines at the top of the list of online activities; both are used by 92 percent of adults on the Internet.
“It’s a part of everyone’s lives and I don’t see that changing any time soon,” says Ben Niolet, marketing director at the local email marketing firm Contactology. “And Twitter, Facebook, even YouTube, what they all have in common is that email is the spine that powers them.”
But long-term trends might be running against it. A 2009 Pew survey found that teenagers’ email use had declined to 73 percent, down from 89 percent in 2004.
Jones sees this in his students, most of whom use text or instant messaging to communicate with their peers. For those under 25, email is just something for “official business” with The Man. Every year, Jones asks students in his freshman classes how many have given their email password to someone else.
“It’s always at least six or seven out of 20,” he says. “One or two share it with a boyfriend or girlfriend. The rest give it to their parents because they’d just be forwarding the email to them anyway: bills for books, tuition, things like that.”
Jones acknowledges that quitting email cold turkey isn’t feasible for everyone, and he’s had to make some adjustments. He uses TripIt.com (which scans his old email address for confirmation numbers and such) for travel logistics. And if you want to schedule an appointment with him, you don’t send an email, you put it on his Google calendar.
Indeed, even with no email, it’s easier to find Jones than ever.
“I’m not trying to kill email, I’m just trying to get people to use something better,” he says. “Holding onto email is like a bike racer still using training wheels. You should get on to something better. I’m trying to lead the exploration into better options. It’s like a car owner saying he’ll never ride a horse again. There are weird compromises you have to make, roads that aren’t paved. But sooner or later, the horse is marginalized to a nostalgic practice and riding in a car is more normal.”
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