How social networks can replace email

February 3, 2010 | 11 comments

The analysis firm Gartner just released five key predictions for social software:

  1. By 2014, social networking services will replace e-mail as the primary vehicle for interpersonal communications for 20 percent of business users.
  2. By 2012, over 50 percent of enterprises will use activity streams that include microblogging, but stand-alone enterprise microblogging will have less than 5 percent penetration.
  3. Through 2012, over 70 percent of IT-dominated social media initiatives will fail.
  4. Within five years, 70 percent of collaboration and communications applications designed on PCs will be modeled after user experience lessons from smartphone collaboration applications.
  5. Through 2015, only 25 percent of enterprises will routinely utilize social network analysis to improve performance and productivity.

Social networks replacing email. Really?

I broadly agree with all of these, but that first prediction needs a little more analysis. Let’s think about why email has succeeded:

  • Ease of use
  • Ubiquity across devices
  • Platform, service and infrastructure independence

I access email from my Dell PC, my iPhone, and have in the past used Blackberry phones, Macs, Linux boxes, etc, all the way down to Windows 3.1, using a combination of software that’s included Eudora, Thunderbird, Phoenix, Turnpike, and many more. Right now I use a combination of GMail, Google Apps and self-hosted email addresses; in the past I’ve used Microsoft Exchange in various guises, Yahoo Mail, and so on. No matter which provider or hardware I used, I could email anyone else with an email address, no matter which provider or hardware they used. Email is a completely open, interoperable standard.

Social networking is anything but an open, interoperable standard. If you use Facebook, you can communicate with other people on Facebook, full stop. Even networks based on open source solutions like Elgg are essentially social islands.

What needs to be done?

I strongly believe that social messaging can be significantly more useful to both enterprises and individuals than standard email. Proof-of-concept applications like Google Wave are beginning to show the way: you can make resources available to whoever needs to see them, rather than the current, inherently insecure practice of making copies and sending them out. Whereas email takes inspiration from letters and faxes, the social messaging paradigm is based more closely around conference calls and conversations.

Nonetheless, in a business situation, you need to be reasonably certain your message is going to reach the recipient, and the current platform constraints – only being able to message someone using the same site as you – are untenable. Let’s look again at those email success factors:

  • Ease of use
  • Ubiquity across devices
  • Platform, service and infrastructure independence

Social networks do currently have ease of use. They may approach near-ubiquity across devices only if they create a developer ecosystem around their proprietary APIs, as Twitter has done, but this requires a lot of faith in a single third-party service.

No, I think it comes down to one principle:

Email has succeeded because it’s open, standard and decentralized; for social networks to replace it, they must also be open, standard and decentralized.

Next: real world, technical approaches to this that can be implemented today.