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The death of email?

June 2007

One of the best consequences of email has been to improve contact between cyber-capable grandparents and their grandchildren.  A letter from an 18 year old is a rarity, but a few lines by email are easy.

But there’s bad news.  Just as you have sorted out email, in the last few months the under 25’s, like a flock of starlings, have moved on.  Between themselves they have pretty much given up email and now commune through one of the online networking groups, and particularly

Founded in 2004 by Harvard undergraduates, and initially only open to Ivy League universities, Facebook now has over 19 million users.  The owners have already turned down an eye watering offer of $1bn.
It works like the most efficient old-boys association you could imagine.  The idea is that you create a profile of yourself which contains as much personal information as you want and then associate yourself with one or more of the available networking groups which reflect your real life. 

Initially this just meant your university; but then they extended it to schools, employers and regions.  Most of the young still use it like an old-boys association, however.

The key to it is your list of “friends”.  These are people you have invited directly or who have invited you, perhaps through a mutual friend or because they are in the same network as you.  Much as you might meet people in real life, in fact, but better, because you can choose to exclude any person from your list of friends.
Friends use the site to send private messages to each other (no need for email addresses) or they can write notes on part of your own page known as your “wall”, which is visible to all your contacts.  This is the way they pass news around.  It is also fast becoming their main means of issuing and replying to invitations, or finding people they have lost touch with. 

There has also grown up a touching culture that you don’t lie to Facebook; if your status moves from single to attached, for example, an announcement on Facebook is as binding as an announcement in The Times.   
Huge numbers of the chic young have now given up using email (“sooo 2006…”) for almost everything except communication with us Oldies.

There are problems.  If you live by the sword, you may die by it.  Facebook entries are in the public domain, as Lord Browne of BP discovered last month when the newspapers re-published Facebook comments made by Jeff Chevalier, his recent nemesis.

Prospective employers are already studying the Facebook entries, so all those reports of amusing antics at the Rugby Club dinner involving shaving foam that seemed like such a good idea at the time might count against you at interview.

Or, perhaps more seriously, thoughtless comments you may have written about someone may show your true nature, or politics, more effectively than any job application form.  It’s too soon for any serious defamation cases to have been brought, but it can only be a matter of time.

Worse, an animal rights group recently declared that they would be trawling the Oxford University Facebook network to find supporters of testing on animals, and that any they found any would be regarded as legitimate targets.

In America a number of schools have used Facebook to expose underage drinking; pictures of the students with booze in hand have been put proudly on Facebook, only be used in evidence against them.

Mind you, the students have found ways of fighting back, by posting details of fake drinking parties, which the University authorities, feeling rather pleased with themselves, have raided – only to find an empty room and a jubilant message from the students.