It's become a (very) familiar refrain: email is broken/dying/limping/ebola-ridden. It can be, at any rate, annoying. New data from the BuzzFeed network over the last seven months reveals a drastic drop in email sharing, which might be indicative of a real change in how we use email.
Looking at email referrals (incoming traffic detected from mail clients like Google, Hotmail, Yahoo, etc.) across the BuzzFeed network over the last seven months shows a consistent drop in email referrals to partner sites from 13 million a month in January to just over 5 million in August, a full 39 percent — and that's with a tiny spike from July to August.
(The BuzzFeed Network, if you weren't aware, is a set of sites like TMZ and The Daily Mail that altogether have over 300 million users a month, and every month BuzzFeed publishes a Social Intelligence Report that draws on data gathered from this network, and is available only to members of the network.)
Even if the numbers aren't totally precise — Dave Pell, who runs the excellent Next Draft newsletter, told me that some email clients don't provide referral information — the overall trend is quite clear within the BuzzFeed network. People are using email less and less to share stuff, for some reason. (This is distinct from the whole newsletter trend of the last couple years; Pell tells me his newsletter, for instance, is growing like crazy. Even Twitter's launched a newsletter of sorts. )
And while it's true that sites in the BuzzFeed network tend to produce more viral things — social things you might say, geared toward sharing on Facebook and Twitter, it's significant that, for these sites, email has steeply fallen off as a vector for sharing.
The question, really, is why? Is it because people that used to share links via email are increasingly using Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or some other social media? Well, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and social referrals have been rising rapidly over the same period — Facebook referrals went from just under 50 million to just over 70 million; Twitter went from just under 14 million to nearly 25 million; Pinterest from around 100,000 to 200,000 (to be fair, it peaked at 380,000 in April, fell, and is rising again). Correlation isn't causation, but maybe.
One thing to note. On some sites, like the Atlantic, which is part of the BuzzFeed stats network, the email button is disappearing from the more prominent "share" buttons that commonly hover above stories, asking for a click to transport the link you're reading to your friends. As you can see, it's hidden up near that other very vestigial thing, printing. The same is true of Slate and TMZ, which either give their email buttons less real estate or hide them very well. Which sounds trivial — can't you just copy and paste the link duhhh? — but consider the kinds of users most likely to email stories. You know, your dad. Put another way, 31 percent of the New York Times' top sixty shared stories were shared via email; for the Times audience (which, you might imagine, is older than BuzzFeed's), email's a highly important vector for spreading Times stories. By comparison, of BuzzFeed.com's most shared stories, only 13 percent of them were shared via people pressing the email button. The Times and BuzzFeed give the same weight and prominence to their email buttons that they do to other social sharing buttons, so the email dropoff clearly goes beyond the button.
One last possibility floated by BuzzFeed's data scientists: 63 percent of the Times' most shared stories were from the Opinion section, which tends to be political — people may want to share those kinds of highly opinionated stories over a private medium, whereas it's totally kosher to post a "Hey, Remember That Cool Weird Thing From 90s" all over your Facebook wall.