The address book will live on-but it has to change

The little black book is still alive

People have long talked about the death of the business card and yet the paper ornament lives on. Andrew Hill, in his recent article in the FT, persuasively debates that it will continue to exist. He also suggests an end to the contacts book. I beg to disagree.

The little black book is still alive and kicking

The address book has had a long life and taken many different forms over the years. You will have come across it as:

  • the little black book, allegedly invented by the brewmaster – see video proof below;
  • the Rolodex in the 50s, empty on many desks since then;
  • the often huge Filofax in the 80s;
  • the frustrating PDA in the 90s and
  • the contacts app since the ‘00s (noughties).

Despite the important role it holds in social life and business and despite technology advancements, it has, in most parts, remained a hard to maintain list of people. Granted, it has upgraded its A-Z ‘ears’ to a search field but it’s still hard to understand and effectively leverage.

The proliferation of social networks in the ’10s (teenies) and the open – as opposed to private – character they promote, has led many to raise the debate of whether the address book is becoming obsolete as more people are actively using social networks to look-up, connect and contact people they are after. This behaviour, it’s debated, will lead to a public, web-based address book with contact details shared and publicly available. The lack of a personal address book will impact both our ability to better manage our network and our already deteriorating and increasingly important privacy; and I will explain why.

From the LinkedIn invite to the Instagram handle

Social networks have facilitated a rapid growth in our contact base, which now consists of colleagues and friends from our distant past but it has also expanded to include one-time-acquaintances and often complete strangers. It started from the LinkedIn invite, which often took the form of a business card exchange or, sometimes, a cold call. In a recent meeting I had with a technology industry expert, he exasperated:

“You know how many times friends call asking me to introduce someone I am connected with on LinkedIn and I don’t remember who that someone is and where I met them?”

Nowadays, we can also witness the rise in the use of another -previously not business involved- social network. Instagram has been growing larger by the minute and has penetrated business interactions as well. Giving out your “Insta Handle” has now become the equivalent of giving out your phone number. Although, this was until now reserved for friends and casual acquaintances, it’s slowly but steadily being established as a way to connect with business contacts. 

Contact management is not the only aspect being affected; privacy is hard hit as well. Our network of contacts is exposed and many times leveraged without our explicit consent. Most networks allow a direct communication from a total stranger, who can easily use you as a reference for a contact he is after without your consent.

For this reason I treat all social network communication as deprioritised Vs my other communications; I use a communications hierarchy. My hierarchy is – from most to least important – call, text, email, IM. In a recent, popular blog, entrepreneur and consultant Cyrus Stoller sets his hierarchy as call, text, IM, email. I expect that you have your own hierarchy, and of course, the linear aspect is somewhat simplified; the importance of each communication could vary with time of the day or day of the week. The key is to have an understanding with your key contacts on what your hierarchy is to avoid interruptions. The hierarchy is increasingly important in business. I would not answer a call or a text in a meeting unless it was urgent and therefore I prefer to know who is calling so I can better judge the urgency.


The important conclusion here is that I would not want everyone I’m connected with on LinkedIn to have my phone number and I would definitely not want my phone number to be publicly available. I am not an advocate of the “web being everyone’s rolodex” (as mentioned in the FT article), and am against services like True Caller which make private address books open to the public. I should be able to choose who communicates with me and how, who has access to interrupt me on my phone and who will have to wait for me to find an appropriate time to communicate back.

This whole privacy issue becomes even more acute when you are on the stronger side of the relationship; when you are the buyer, the stakeholder, a political figure, a celebrity; your need for privacy increases and you are less likely to want to openly share your contact details.

A new beginning

Given that our contacts must not be fully exposed online, a need remains for a personal address book that contains all this info, organises it and keeps it up to date. It should embrace the fact that we have many more contacts than we can possibly hold in a little black book and help us better understand our network so we can quickly identify who to contact in each situation. It should constantly learn and adapt by leveraging the collective input of users to help each one individually whilst maintaining the highest level of privacy.

But the responsibility also falls on us. We should manage and tend to it, as it’s too important a tool to ignore; it’s a source of knowledge and skills but also a reminder of people, experiences and ideas. A routine commitment to managing your contact base is one of the most basic things you can do to grow both yourself and your business.

The address book should stop being a list of contacts and become a daily access tool providing insight and perspective on something that is as alive and kicking as a constantly evolving network of knowledge, skills and leads.

Andrew Hill writes “Judging from its neglect of the Gmail Contacts function, and its shutdown of Bump, a contact-sharing application, Google agrees: search and the cloud will connect more people than dumb lists of numbers and addresses.” Yet Google is rebuilding its Gmail Contacts team and merging contacts with Hangouts and I believe they are not planning a dumb contacts list but an intelligent online address book.

We hope to beat them to it 🙂

Updated on 08 Aug 2019.

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