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Posted at 8:32 AM ET, 12/21/2010

Story pick: The death of email

By Ian Shapira

I've always wondered how often emails nowadays begin with an apology. For instance, I wrote a college friend in early November. She replied, 17 days later. "Sorry it took me so long to reply," she began. Then, after deep consternation (laziness, too), I responded 18 days later. "Hey there, sorry myself for the late reply!" I wrote in my introduction. One of the unspoken expectations of email etiquette, I hope, is that you can't rely on people to write back immediately. You can't be offended.

Today, the New York Times has an excellent front page story that looks at the decreasing use of email, especially among the Millennial generation, those now in their 20s and early 30s. Richtel, a technology reporter who won the Pulitzer Prize this year for his frightening "Driven to Distraction" series, sums up the trend in a precise and cheeky manner:

The problem with e-mail, young people say, is that it involves a boringly long process of signing into an account, typing out a subject line and then sending a message that might not be received or answered for hours. And sign-offs like “sincerely” — seriously?

Richtel cites Facebook's revamped email system, which recently killed subject lines and "cc" and "bc" lines; and, in one of the company's sneakier moves, Facebook has transformed the enter button into the "send" button -- you think you're creating a new paragraph but, really, you're sending the email.

Richtel smartly captures the trend by examining the tensions between Baby Boomers and Millennials. I loved how he interviewed a California mother, who seemed only partially ambivalent for slamming the younger generation for killing the English language; and her daughter, who was practically offended by her parents' use of AOL email. Here was my favorite part of the story:

Mary Bird, 65, of San Leandro, Calif., is another traditionalist, if a reluctant one. “I don’t want to be one of those elders who castigate young peoples’ form of communication,” she said. “But the art of language, the beauty of language, is being lost.” Ms. Bird’s daughter, Katie Bird Hunter, 26, is on the other side of the digital communications divide and finds her parents to be out of touch. “They still use AOL,” she says, implying with her tone that she finds this totally gross.

I think there's a decent chance that people's email archives are filled with apologies for writing their friends and relatives back so late. One way to add to this story would have been to get a cross-section of people and ask them to type in the word "sorry" into their email's search function and see how often the word pops up in their archives. Then, figure out how many of those apologies were for tardy email replies.

As an experiment, I did it for my own email account. The results were depressing. "Sorry" has appeared in about 180 different of my emails or gmail chats. I am a betting (and hoping) most of those instances were for late emails -- and not something else.

By Ian Shapira  | December 21, 2010; 8:32 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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