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?