Email Versus Social Networks

There is a lot of talk lately about social networks and, of course, whether they will replace email as the primary form of Internet communication. If this sounds familiar, it is. Last year, RSS was going to replace email. The year before that blogs where going to replace email. And yet, according to research group Radicati, there will be 1.4 billion active email accounts at the end of this year.

ISPs like Hotmail and Yahoo mail, though, are taking what I'll call "The Facebook Threat" seriously. Worried that social networks will begin siphoning off much needed traffic necessary to maintain high banner CPM's, these ISPs are beginning to incorporate social networking functionality into their email offerings, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal.

And, on the other hand, social networking groups are adding more email capabilities, allowing, for instance, Facebook users to email SN Outlanders (those who live off the grid, so to speak: outside the social network itself).



Social networks have great advantages that email cannot offer. Having used Facebook now for a few weeks, simply seeing people's pictures has become a great advancement to my face/name-challenged mind. I might actually recognize some of these people at the next trade show I attend. And there is a fascination in keeping in constant touch with every bit of minutiae in your network members' personal lives. Knowing that powerful, high-ranking colleagues are suffering from insomnia, buying paint at Home Depot, or sitting around bored on a Sunday adds an aspect to business networking that is just missing from sites like Linked-in.

On the other hand, email has advantages that social networks just can't compete with. Take groups, for instance. I've run a number of private email listserves and I currently run The Inbox Insiders. Like many people in my personal Facebook network, I've created a Facebook Group to mirror my non-Facebook networking landscape. I'm a member of many of these Facebook Groups, myself.

Setting up the Facebook Group and inviting members generated quite a bit of discussion on Inbox Insiders (Email Edition), but virtually no discussion on Inbox Insiders (Facebook Edition). And while everyone wanted to be a member of both versions of the group, there is almost no activity on the Facebook group. All the action is happening through email. The reason is that there is still an immediacy and an "in-your-faceness" to email that social networks don't have. I have to go to the social network, but the email group comes to me, and is immediate. The social network is like a statement. The email network is like a discussion, where everyone sees the responses at the same time and they are flowing into a conduit (your inbox) that is connected to us at the hip.

I follow an email discussion while I'm carrying out my day-to-day activities. A social network requires a break from my day-to-day in order to check it.

I have found the same to be true at all the other Facebook groups I'm a member of. I sign up. And then I forget them. Am I really supporting the Monks in Burma by signing up for the appropriate Facebook Group? Doesn't seem like it.

It seems like more of a trophy than a discussion: collecting groups for the sake of collecting groups. But an email list? That is up-close and personal, buster. It is requiring you to respond or be left out. And that is a powerful force that social networks just haven't figured out yet.

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