Fellow ZDNet blogger asked a great question this week: Should universities forget email and use Facebook instead? He sites the growing popularity of Facebook over email and certainly anecdotal evidence supports the study to which he points. We tend not to interact with students at the K-12 level via Facebook because it just isn't seemly (and e-communications should happen through an archived medium like a school-controlled email system). However, our older students, and certainly college students, are hooked into Facebook and MySpace a lot more than they are via email.
I take exception with the use of Facebook, though, for institutions. There's simply too much noise and in K-12, the parental outcry would be extraordinary (and justified). However, the turn away from email and towards Facebook points to the popularity of the particular site, but also to the natural progression of communication it represents. I think Facebook is great and I communicate with friends and relatives more with Facebook and Twitter than I do with email.
So why is that? Because in addition to private, email-like messages, Facebook integrates chat, public comment areas/discussion, photo and video uploads and/or links, groups, and much more than even Gmail can offer. It's interactive, interesting, and full-featured in ways that email was never designed to be.
I'm not planning to give up email, nor am I abandoning plans to roll out Google Apps this summer. Facebook still doesn't have built-in cloud-based productivity applications and it's still maturing. However, academic institutions and business should be looking at emerging social media solutions to meet their communication needs (check out this demo from Intel's Paul Otellini). Ning does many of the things that Facebook does, but remains under the control of its creator (namely a district or university); some student information systems are looking at incorporating elements of social media sites to improve communication and interactivity.
Students and faculty could engage in really interesting new ways if a social network replaced an email system. As Facebook grows in popularity (and the MySpace backlash fades away), turnkey solutions for social media-based communications will come of age. Then, to answer Zack's question, schools can definitely start leaving email behind.