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Apr 11

For Generation Z, Email Has Become a Rite of Passage – WSJ

Your personal hierarchy of life-altering firsts likely includes your first kiss, your first time behind the wheel or the first time you left home. For members of Generation Z, now in their teens or early 20s, another rite of passage has taken on outsize importance: sending your first email.

“I’m more of an adult now that I send email,” says Sumanth Neerumalla, a junior at the University of Maryland. He says becoming a person who sends emails felt like a bigger rite of passage than registering to vote.

You might think a generation as tech-savvy as this one, which can hardly remember a time before smartphones, Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram, would have embraced email in its infancy.

But progress has inverted the order in which Generation Z encounters many technologies, relative to their older peers. Many used tablets before laptops, streaming before downloads and chat before email. For them, email is as about as much fun as applying to college or creating a résumé.

“The way I first perceived email was, it was something my parents did for work,” says Zach Kahn, a 21-year-old senior at George Washington University.

I heard variants of this sentiment from 15 young adults, ages 16 to 21: Email is for communicating with old people, the digital equivalent of putting on a shirt and tie.

“I would never even think of emailing my friends, they would just react super weird,” says Tanya E. Van Gastel, a 21-year-old senior at University of Antwerp, in Belgium. “They would be like ‘Why don’t you text me?’ ”

Those of us who went to college before Facebook might remember heartfelt emails to friends. That is an alien concept to most of Generation Z.

Or, as 16-year-old Ben Pasternak, developer of the hit iOS game Impossible Rush, wrote me when I asked if he emails to friends, “No, no teen does that ha-ha.”

Generation Z has moved through multiple communication tools—from texting, AOL instant messenger and MSN messenger to Facebook Messenger and a crush of communication apps. All are chat-based: instantaneous, short and informal. That is the antithesis of the business email.

“I have eight different means of communication,” says Ms. Van Gastel, whose phone audibly chirped in the background throughout our interview. “I have a personalized ringtone for every different messaging app so I can guess who is texting me,” she adds.

Some of the young people I interviewed have had email accounts since they were 11, but use them almost exclusively to receive school assignments or to sign up for things online. Overwhelmingly, they treated email as a read-only medium, until they had to use it to communicate with adults.

As they move into their first internships and jobs, some are discovering that mastering the arcane art of a good email—Mr. Neerumalla calls it “long-form texting”—can be a competitive advantage. Email, after all, is still a way to reach out to nearly anyone, with a chance at a response.

Xavier Di Petta credits email with some of his success as a precocious entrepreneur.

In 2009, when he was 12 years old, Mr. Di Petta found email addresses for YouTube staffers in a lawsuit document and contacted them directly about a new program that allowed him to make money from his videos. Mr. Di Petta was admitted to the program, and says the visibility led in part to a $2 million investment in his social-media startup, All Day Media, in 2014.

Email, however, isn’t always smooth sailing for members of Generation Z weaned on texting.

Interviewees recall mistakes that are forgivable in texts but not emails, such as drafts they had failed to review before sending, misspelled names and dispatching multiple short emails rather than one thoughtful missive. Like email users of all ages, they have run afoul of the dreaded “reply all” land mine.

Mr. Kahn, the George Washington senior, says he mistakenly included his high-school guidance counselor in a reply intended only for his parents. “I had said something to the effect of ‘f*** no’ to a ‘safety school’ that my guidance counselor had suggested I apply to, and she replied with something like ‘message received.’ ”

One University of Southern California-Yahoo study of 16 billion emails exchanged among two million users of Yahoo mail found that teens were the fastest to respond to emails and sent the shortest messages. They appeared to be “using email as text messages,” saysKristina Lerman, a co-author of the study and a USC professor.

Generation Z’s willingness to adopt email may reflect hard lessons learned by their underemployed, debt-burdened older peers, saysJason Dorsey, co-founder of Generational Kinetics, a survey firm that focuses on young people.

“Millennials wanted the rules bent to them, and Generation Z is saying, ‘I’ll take whatever job you have, tell me what you need to me to do and I’ll follow the rules to be successful,’ ” Mr. Dorsey says.

Email’s grip on the workplace means it isn’t dying out, at least not yet, he notes. That might need to wait until Generation Z is in charge. Then, we’ll find out if email’s advantages—an open standard that allows people using different services to communicate, as opposed to siloed messaging apps—will outweigh its disadvantages, such as spam. It is entirely possible email will survive because we still need a place to communicate slowly and thoughtfully, rather than in short bursts.

Or maybe not. Generation Z’s younger peers—dubbed “Generation Alpha” by some—are even more evolved in their use of communication technologies, says Gilad Abarbanel, a 20-year-old junior at Rutgers University who runs a summer camp and youth movement.

“When I talk to people in their freshman year of high school,” says Mr. Abarbanel, “they say ‘Facebook is for old people.’ ”

Source: For Generation Z, Email Has Become a Rite of Passage – WSJ

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