Email: The First –and Largest– Social Network

I just asked my friends on Twitter what their first social network was (see their responses), and most gave a varying degree of responses of web based communities,  a few claimed early BBS systems –I didn’t see anyone claim email.

Most Get it Wrong: Facebook is not the Largest Social Network
People often make the mistake that Friendster, Tribes, or some early social site was the first social network. People also make the mistake that Facebook is the largest social network to date, in reality, the largest social networks are email.   Let’s run the numbers: Microsoft told me that Hotmail has 375 million active accounts worldwide, Yahoo mail is reported at 280mm, and Facebook only has 200 million but growing.  Email is the first –and largest digital social network and will likely continue this path of domination, and hey, that’s coming from me, a social technology analyst.

Email is the First –and Largest– Social Network
Well if you agree that Facebook, a private community of your friends is a social network, then so is email. They both have the same requirements 1) profiles (emails have signatures), 2) Ability to connect to each other (the act of emailing, and often responding, 3) Do something useful (email users share information, and sometimes collaborate).  Next email still an important mode of communication, while we often complain about email overload, trust research indicates people still trust emails from friends –this will only continue.

Social Network Communications Cross Into Email
Also, take for example a great deal of Facebook, Twitter, and Plaxo messages enter into our email inboxes, I can read Twitter DMs, and Facebook messages in my email –then choose to respond. What’s the difference? Some call this BACN, if it is preferred, while others may call it Spam, it’s unwanted.  When I communicate to the top bloggers, we often are using email to discuss truly important things that we wouldn’t say in public –or make plans –not everything is in public. Perhaps the only blogger I know that can’t be reached by email is Scoble –but I have his phone number if I need to reach him.

Email Vendors Go Social
If you’re not familiar with email vendors, they help brands connect with customers (mostly opt-in) with email marketing.  When I started my path as an analyst covering social technologies, I was mainly briefed by social networks like MySpace, Facebook and Community Platforms. Now, I’m starting to get briefed more and more by email marketing firms who are entering the social space, to appease their clients (email marketers) the first step is they are adding “Share this” (called Social Pollination) type of features to direct email marketing pieces so friends can share emails with friends in social networks.

Future of Email and Social Networks Are The Same
In the next few years, email and social networks will look the same –or be the same.  Expect large email vendors like Google (Wave shows promise) Yahoo Mail, Microsoft Live to envelop the social experience.  In fact, Microsoft Live is already showing elements of the activity of your personal network right into the context of email.    Take Facebook’s news stream or Friendfeed, these are starting to represent simlar content from emails –the world’s are merging.