How social networks can replace email

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.

11 responses to “How social networks can replace email”

  1. I’ll look forward to your next post – and I definitely agree that large companies aren’t going to move to a social networking when it means their emails are stored by someone else.

    Oh – and sorry about the confused comments on FB – I was browsing with FB mobile, which showed me the first 5 lines (up to the end of point 1) and then stopped, with no hint that there was any more, or that there was a link to follow.

  2. Hey, no worries – I knew exactly where you were coming from! I hope you don’t mind me including the text here:

    Believe it when I see it. Our email is held in nice secure internal servers where we have total control over it.

    And that’s exactly the issue. This kind of security and control is hugely important, you can’t advocate social messaging without understanding that.

  3. For a start, being a financial company, we’re legally bound to keep all correspondence for _at least_ 7 years, in a format where we can easily find everything sent from/to a particular customer.

    Let’s see you do _that_ with Facebook.

  4. Totally. The legislative requirements on financial institutions, education, etc etc all preclude using those kinds of services.

    Which, obviously, hasn’t stopped schools asking their students to participate on Facebook. But that’s nuts, probably illegal (at least in Europe), and crossing a serious ethical line. Zuckerberg infamously said “the age of privacy is dead”; that kind of closes a door for any kind of organization where privacy is actually important.

  5. Although I agree, I remember when we had an internal email system that was internal only. I used another system to communicate externally. I think closed systems within big institutions still have a place.

    We’re (probably) going Sharepoint here, which is none of the things you say (it’s closed, centralised etc), but DOES allow massive collaboration opportunities in-house for our registered users.

    Gartner are quite cautious with their dates and percentages so they probably are right, it will take that long for management to see the change coming and understand it.

  6. Katie: I agree. It’s all about institutional choice – which is something you largely don’t have with the current crop of systems. (Of course, you can install Elgg, Jive and so on behind a firewall.)

  7. It is interesting to compare the current state of social networking to the pre-internet status of email where each BBS and service provider had their own incompatible system. The first step was to build bridging systems, e.g. some of the BB services had a system where they would exchange email between different services overnight. Once it was clear that people wanted that, it made sense to adopt the internet standard and we eventually saw all services integrating with that. With social networks we are currently at the bridging stage, since people are building all sorts of apps using the APIs to cross-post and aggregate different social networks. Assuming people start using the bridging services in large numbers, there will be enough pressure on social networking sites for open standards to emerge and be adopted.

  8. That’s a very interesting analogy, Matt – these bridging services as a kind of 21st century FidoNet? I remember those node systems, but hadn’t made the connection. Now you’ve made it for me, I completely agree.

  9. you hit a very hot button, the platform and service in dependency. So in order to be independent, everybody can do with everybody else. I guess we need to keep that in mind when we talk new ways of info exchange. But to the contrary, exactly that openness lead to the death of email. Email would still be absolutely cool today if not marketing spam had clogged it.

  10. I think email is going to be with us for a little while yet, crucially because -as you say – its an open standard, and it is really really REALLY easy to implement.

    SNs seem to be overkill if all you want to do is move a message from person A to person B, if you want to do more then that then you’re not trying to solve the same problem.

    Far more likely is that SN tech complements email rather than replaces it.

    Regarding the previous comment re: spam –

    Spam is not going to go away any time soon, whether you’re using email, social networks or internet to brain hyperlink. Reason being is that it’s a social problem not a technological one – the economics of spam work, while that remains true it’ll never go away.

  11. Surely some things must show up (soon please)to improve email rather than replace it. I had hoped GoogleWave would become a useful addition to my communication toolbox, which still includes fountain pens and writing paper, for on-going collaborative work. I’m still wondering whether Wave will reach critical mass before the next idea comes along (and I’ll go and have a look a Buzz later today).

    An open standard, platform independent, means to manage email alongside other information streams would be useful. It might even make it into that 30% of IT dominated initiatives the Gartner survey predicts will succeed. Will enough developers or IT funders be interested in this useful practical idea? I doubt it.

    Email is the tarmac road of our electronic network. Bumpy, patched up crowded and disliked, it’s also easily fixed, scaleable, well connected and carries many different kinds of traffic. Email now encompasses part of our identity, alongside our tarmac-road based physical address. Trouble is even a Tesla can’t get through rush-hour traffic faster than a bicycle.

    Please someone; build me flying car for my email. Make it secure, reliable, easy to maintain, cheap to operate and able to carry all kinds of different information streams. No? Guess I have to put up with plain old email then. It’s not going away.

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