Extra credit reflection: Is IM really taking the place of email?

Remember when email was considered the fastest way to send messages and documents via the internet? That was the case in the early 1990s, when individuals and businesses really started using electronic mail as a way to communicate and share information over long distances. Since then, other technologies, such as Instant Messaging have come along that allow users to share digitally over the internet as well. But what are the chances that IM could replace email as the preferred method in which people, and businesses, swap messages and documentation?

Olivine Wai-Yu Lo and Louis Leung (2009) conducted a study in which they surveyed 236 college students to determine which medium, IM or email, they would prefer if they could choose only one. Shockingly, 78% of respondents said they would use IM rather than email, “(indicating) the gradual switch in CMC preference from e-mail to IM over the past few years – at least among college students.” And why not? IM has many features email lacks: it’s instantaneous, it allows users to see if their “buddies” are available on-line, and even allows them to attach pictures and video no matter the file size. By comparison, email is slow and cumbersome, taking time to arrive and limiting the size of files most users can transmit. The students also indicated they preferred IM because their friends use it, it’s fun to use and it gives them a feeling of social connection that email cannot.

But is a sample of 236 college students a good representation of the student population (certainly not of the general population)? I’ve used IM quite a bit at various jobs I’ve held. It’s quite useful, particularly when communicating with colleagues internationally or even in the same office building. I don’t see it as a replacement for email though. IM can be annoying when you’re busy and it pops up on your screen every five minutes. If you don’t answer right away the sender thinks something is wrong and tries again. Email waits for you. It’s there in the morning when you boot up and you can organize it or prioritize it and respond to it at your leisure. And if multi-tasking and trendiness are the reasons people prefer IM to email, won’t those same respondents prefer Facebook to IM?

Facebook combines all the features of IM and email into one interface, plus it lets the user follow people or companies they are interested in, market goods and services, pursue romantic relationships and much, much more. Twitter and other social sites also allow users to connect and share in ways IM and email cannot. Social tools are being developed all the time to compete with Facebook and Twitter and new studies will be conducted to see how email and IM hold up to these technologies. Through it all, I believe email will remain constant, as it is fully established across most internet using demographics.


Effects of gratification-opportunities and gratifications-obtained on preferences of instant messaging and e-mail among college students. Telematics and Informatics, May 2009. doi:10.1016/j.tele.2008.06.001

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