SAN FRANCISCO--The future of e-mail might be found on the pages of MySpace.com and Facebook.
Just ask a group of teen Internet entrepreneurs, who readily admit that traditional e-mail is better suited for keeping up professional relationships or communicating with adults.
"I only use e-mail for my business and to get sponsors," Martina Butler, the host of the teen podcast Emo Girl Talk, said during a panel discussion here at the Mashup 2007 conference, which is focused on the technology generation. With friends, Bulter said she only sends notes via a social network.
"Sometimes I say I e-mailed you, but I mean I Myspace'd or Facebook'ed you," she said.
To be sure, much has been written about the demise of e-mail, given the annoyance of spam and the rise of tools like instant messaging, voice over IP and text messaging. But e-mail has hung on to its utility in office environments and at home, even if it's given up some ground to new challengers. It may be that social networks are the most potent new rival to e-mail, one of the Internet's oldest forms of communication. With tens of millions of members on their respective networks, MySpace and Facebook can wield great influence over a generation living online, either through the cell phone or the Internet.
And if you're among those who believe teens are the future, then e-mail could be knocked down a rung. For example, Craig Sherman, CEO of Gaia Online, a virtual world for teens and college kids, describes the age group as "the first and early adopters of new trends. Things they are doing are what everyone will be doing in five years."
To hear the teen panelists tell it, that means e-mail will be strictly the domain of business dealings.
"If I'm talking to any friends it's through a social network," said Asheem Badshah, a teenaged president of Scriptovia.com, an essay-sharing site that launched this summer. "For me even IM died, and was replaced by text messaging. Facebook will replace e-mail for communicating with certain people."
Almost on cue, a Microsoft executive sitting in the audience chimed in with a question to the teens, saying that given his work, he's "interested in people not using e-mail." He asked the panelists to comment about the fact that e-mail transmits to mobile devices, for example. Also, Facebook will send its members an e-mail anytime someone sends them a message on the social network.
Butler replied that she uses Facebook on her cell phone. "I need (Facebook) everywhere I go, but I log into e-mail only once a week," she said.
More and more, social networks are playing a bigger role on the cell phone. In the last six to nine months, teens in the United States have taken to text messaging in numbers that rival usage in Europe and Asia. According to market research firm JupiterResearch, 80 percent of teens with cell phones regularly use text messaging.
Catherine Cook, the 17-year-old founder and president of MyYearbook.com, was the lone teen entrepreneur who said she still uses e-mail regularly to keep up with camp friends or business relationships. Still, that usage pales in comparison to her habit of text messaging. She said she sends a thousand text messages a month.
"I don't know any teen who doesn't have a phone with them all the time," Cook said.
Still, the age group is a fickle bunch. All of the panelists said that they're constantly looking for the next, new thing to stay current with friends; and they often use different social networks and tools to keep up with different sets of people.
Cook, for example, said she uses her own social network MyYearbook to talk to her friends from school, but she uses Facebook to keep up with what's happening at Georgetown University, where she plans to attend school in the fall. Cook blogs at MySpace as a way to meet new friends, and she's also on LinkedIn to mine new professional relationships.
"Teens are on lots of sites and picking and choosing activities from each one," she said. "It's based on who you actually want to talk to."
Similarly, Ashley Qualls, president of WhateverLife, a graphical tool for users of MySpace, said she keeps adding on new social networks to her roster of memberships online. "People leave a trail of where they decide to go," she said.
Badshah said that to subscribe to only one social network means losing out on friendships with people who are active on other rival social networks. That's because having real estate on MySpace or Facebook means keeping tabs with only certain friends through messaging, blogs and recent photos. That the two major social networks don't interoperate could be reason for a new social network that could act as an intermediary to aggregate friends in one place, Badshah said, much the way Trillian did for IM applications like Yahoo and AOL.
"It's a problem for teens--you're like losing out on some of your friends if you choose just one," he said.
"To have all your buddy lists in one place, that's where this is going," Badshah said.
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Stefanie Olsen covers science and technology for CNET News.com. In this series, she examines the young generation's unique immersion in the Web, cell phones, IM and online communities.
Sit down with children when they're online, and make sure they visit only Web sites that are parent-approved. The American Library Association lists great sites for kids on its Web site.
Use child-friendly search engines or one with parental controls. KidsClick, for example, is a Web search site by librarians.
Establish a family e-mail account.
Talk to children about their online activities and online friends because to them, the Internet is an extension of the real world.
Establish rules for the Internet. Studies from Canada's Media Awareness group have shown that children respond positively to established rules.
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