in Management & Leadership

Email Blows Away All Other Social Networks

The following is also my latest MediaPost Spin column.

Email Blows Away All Other Social Networks

January 4th, 2008 by Max Kalehoff
With the explosive excitement and high valuations of Facebook and the like, it’s time to take a step back and acknowledge the mother of all social networks: email. Yes, plain-vanilla email.

Sure, a few of the big social networks have really taken off recently, but email is still by far the dominant and most practical platform for social connections. A recent Pew Internet & American Life Project survey found that 91% of Internet users between the ages of 18 and 64 send or read e-mail, far more than any social network.

In fact, email is so dominant that it’s the single open-source backbone of nearly every social network. Think about it: Most social networks require your email address to sign up. Then they try to upload your email address book in order to communicate with your contacts. I can’t think of a social network I belong to that doesn’t ask me for my email address every time I log in. In fact, I find myself turning off the default email notifications in most social networks I sign up for!

There’s a lot of hoopla about email losing relevance with younger generations, and therefore heading toward extinction. Baloney. The fact is that kids’ primary communication devices are mobile, not computers optimized for email. Therefore they use those devices’ best application: SMS and voice. But once kids graduate, take on business responsibilities and (many) sit in front of a PC all day long, email becomes a hard fact of life. Scott Karp at Publishing2.com noted that “Most people over 30 don’t have many (or any) business or personal relationships that don’t involve communicating by email.” Scott also underscored Research In Motion, whose revenue rose year-over-year to $1.67 billion from $835.1 million — by selling email devices. There’s something to the social network known as email.

Now consider the natural, authentic and deeper social connections inherent in email. Steve Hodson, who blogs at WinExtra.com, noted that his email connections “have risen up the ranks of the network over time and as such have more of a trust factor associated with them that you will never find elsewhere.” Actual writing, thoughtful interaction and more manual contact management lead to connections far more significant than superficial layers of distributed pokes and passive status feeds.

And as proof that social-networking dominance just might lie with email, the major Internet media companies have acknowledged plans to turn their email services into social networks. Saul Hansell reported on the New York Times Bits blog that “Yahoo and Google realize they have this information (email address books) and can use it to build their own services that connect people to their contacts.” Joe Kraus, who runs Google’s OpenSocial project, conceded “there are opportunities with iGoogle to make it more social. It is much easier to extend an existing habit than to create a brand.” Yahoo has been more forthcoming with its “Inbox 2.0.” I’m not sure of Microsoft, but it could have a

hand at the table with its massive customer base across Hotmail, Exchange and Outlook.

Finally, considering my ongoing bout with Socialnetworkitis, I’m more thankful and bullish on email than ever before. I believe online social networks have a big future, and they’re a critical part of my personal and professional life today. But email still is the most reliable and manageable platform for social interaction. It is my default.

In the future, I hope the benefits of the latest wave of social networks will begin to merge seamlessly with the simplicity, compatibility and utility of email. That includes integrated profiling, information feeds, social-network analysis, privacy and controls. Of course, the big hurdle will be the ongoing fight against spam. Spammers may validate significance, but they’re also preventing email from becoming a truly great social network.

Will any social network ever become more important than email?

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  • http://blog.msurveys.com mario

    I’d beg to disagree on two points:

    - email losing relevance with the younger generation is _not_ baloney. My 12-year old daughter and pretty much all her friends’ primary communication device is not mobile, it’s their PCs or laptops. And they don’t use it for email (or hardly at all), but for IM. I’m am 100% certain that email has very little relevance with that generation, and am equally certain that this has nothing to do with their communication devices being mobile.

    - while companies’ primary communication method right now may be email, there is nothing that says that this is set in stone. It’s not a one-way street: while it may be true that once these youngsters are getting jobs they may be forced to use email, I think it’s at least as true (I’d would say more so) that these youngsters will change the way corporate communications work.

  • http://blog.msurveys.com mario

    I’d beg to disagree on two points:

    - email losing relevance with the younger generation is _not_ baloney. My 12-year old daughter and pretty much all her friends’ primary communication device is not mobile, it’s their PCs or laptops. And they don’t use it for email (or hardly at all), but for IM. I’m am 100% certain that email has very little relevance with that generation, and am equally certain that this has nothing to do with their communication devices being mobile.

    - while companies’ primary communication method right now may be email, there is nothing that says that this is set in stone. It’s not a one-way street: while it may be true that once these youngsters are getting jobs they may be forced to use email, I think it’s at least as true (I’d would say more so) that these youngsters will change the way corporate communications work.

  • http://www.attentionmax.com maxkalehoff

    Thanks for your comment Mario. What younger generations are doing — prior to the workforce — doesn’t really matter in the short term, to be sure. But anyone serious about getting a job in the next 10 years will likely learn how to use email.

    On your second point, I agree that younger peoples’ preferences will influence corporate communications. But I think it will happen slower than most think, and it won’t come at the complete expense of email usage.

  • http://www.attentionmax.com maxkalehoff

    Thanks for your comment Mario. What younger generations are doing — prior to the workforce — doesn’t really matter in the short term, to be sure. But anyone serious about getting a job in the next 10 years will likely learn how to use email.

    On your second point, I agree that younger peoples’ preferences will influence corporate communications. But I think it will happen slower than most think, and it won’t come at the complete expense of email usage.

  • http://agoraplace.wordpress.com theopapada

    Excellent post. Although i believe in the value of terms like Web 2.0 they sometimes contribute to a myopic perspective on things. Email is ‘sooo We b 1.0′ that we forget its backbone role in facilitating the kind of social interaction that is definitive of Web 2.0.

    But what is most important is that what you say seems surprising to us all. The cause of our surprise is nothing else than our misplaced web 2.0-tool myopia. Otherwise, if we had really understood web 2.0, the ‘social web’, there would be no need for you to write this post. Thanks.

  • http://agoraplace.wordpress.com theopapada

    Excellent post. Although i believe in the value of terms like Web 2.0 they sometimes contribute to a myopic perspective on things. Email is ‘sooo We b 1.0′ that we forget its backbone role in facilitating the kind of social interaction that is definitive of Web 2.0.

    But what is most important is that what you say seems surprising to us all. The cause of our surprise is nothing else than our misplaced web 2.0-tool myopia. Otherwise, if we had really understood web 2.0, the ‘social web’, there would be no need for you to write this post. Thanks.

  • http://www.netpop.com NetpopJosh

    Great topics Max. Netpop reveals even slightly higher levels of email use among the U.S. broadband population – 96% use email regularly. (In China, it’s 93%.) Another tidbit which might be of interest is that when we compare media habits, including sending email and watching TV, sending email is 15% higher for Broadbanders than the tube (it’s even more dramatic in China).

    IM and SMS use is considerably lower than email in the general population, but these modes of communicating definitely spike for younger Broadbanders. I agree with you that email isn’t going away. What’s more likely is that as the teens mature into professionals, they will use multiple ways of communicating. How many of use receive facebook updates by email and sms?

    I also agree that Web 2.0 excitement is skewing value in the market. For a direct comparison, let’s look at Yahoo (31B market cap) v Facebook (15B valuation). Yahoo is used regularly by 65% of the U.S. Broadband population. Yahoo Groups is used by 15% of the broadband population. Facebook is used by 11%. That’s quite a spread and I’m not even including other aspects of Yahoo (Flickr for instance). Yahoo has a lot of work to do to fix their positioning and marketing toward Madison Avenue, but I’d rather be in their shoes than trying to devise a business plan to justify a 15B valuation and risk the trust of my user base. (That’s another topic, but suffice it to say that it wouldn’t have required much research to test Beacon appropriately before dropping it into the market.)

    Email and social networking will be intertwined for a long time to come. Colleagues who depart from a company don’t take their email with them. Finding them through social networks provide a new channel by which we reconnect and rekindle relationships. No communication channel is perfect anymore. I doubt we will ever return to just one way of communicating online again. The youth today, with their copious free time, are learning the tricks of managing multiple communication channels to tune into the messages that they want to receive, when and wherever they are.

  • http://www.netpop.com NetpopJosh

    Great topics Max. Netpop reveals even slightly higher levels of email use among the U.S. broadband population – 96% use email regularly. (In China, it’s 93%.) Another tidbit which might be of interest is that when we compare media habits, including sending email and watching TV, sending email is 15% higher for Broadbanders than the tube (it’s even more dramatic in China).

    IM and SMS use is considerably lower than email in the general population, but these modes of communicating definitely spike for younger Broadbanders. I agree with you that email isn’t going away. What’s more likely is that as the teens mature into professionals, they will use multiple ways of communicating. How many of use receive facebook updates by email and sms?

    I also agree that Web 2.0 excitement is skewing value in the market. For a direct comparison, let’s look at Yahoo (31B market cap) v Facebook (15B valuation). Yahoo is used regularly by 65% of the U.S. Broadband population. Yahoo Groups is used by 15% of the broadband population. Facebook is used by 11%. That’s quite a spread and I’m not even including other aspects of Yahoo (Flickr for instance). Yahoo has a lot of work to do to fix their positioning and marketing toward Madison Avenue, but I’d rather be in their shoes than trying to devise a business plan to justify a 15B valuation and risk the trust of my user base. (That’s another topic, but suffice it to say that it wouldn’t have required much research to test Beacon appropriately before dropping it into the market.)

    Email and social networking will be intertwined for a long time to come. Colleagues who depart from a company don’t take their email with them. Finding them through social networks provide a new channel by which we reconnect and rekindle relationships. No communication channel is perfect anymore. I doubt we will ever return to just one way of communicating online again. The youth today, with their copious free time, are learning the tricks of managing multiple communication channels to tune into the messages that they want to receive, when and wherever they are.

  • sbaker8380

    There’s email, and there’s dumb email. I’m on this mailing list of a group of friends from another friend’s college. They talk about sports and politics. My Yahoo box filled up with 30 or 40 emails during the New Hampshire primary. (gmail handles it better by storing them as conversations) If all of these people could agree on a social network, it might work better. But surely one or two of them wouldn’t make the transition. So they stick with e-mail, the lowest common denominator.

    It’s a good post, Max. We’ll have to take this into account as we revise our 2005 blog cover on BW.

  • sbaker8380

    There’s email, and there’s dumb email. I’m on this mailing list of a group of friends from another friend’s college. They talk about sports and politics. My Yahoo box filled up with 30 or 40 emails during the New Hampshire primary. (gmail handles it better by storing them as conversations) If all of these people could agree on a social network, it might work better. But surely one or two of them wouldn’t make the transition. So they stick with e-mail, the lowest common denominator.

    It’s a good post, Max. We’ll have to take this into account as we revise our 2005 blog cover on BW.

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  • azieger

    Max, thanks for a great post. I know we haven’t met, but I completely agree with you — in fact, it’s a little scary the way our blog posts sort of converged (see http://whatmattersonline.wordpress.com/2007/12/21/e-mail-is-the-ultimate-social-medium/). Hey, e-mail will always exist…just like books will always exist and talking will always exist. Hey, nobody wants some scary robo-world where we communicate solely in weird codes like people do on Twitter and Facebook. That feels like some episode of the original Star Trek series!

  • azieger

    Max, thanks for a great post. I know we haven’t met, but I completely agree with you — in fact, it’s a little scary the way our blog posts sort of converged (see http://whatmattersonline.wordpress.com/2007/12/21/e-mail-is-the-ultimate-social-medium/). Hey, e-mail will always exist…just like books will always exist and talking will always exist. Hey, nobody wants some scary robo-world where we communicate solely in weird codes like people do on Twitter and Facebook. That feels like some episode of the original Star Trek series!

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