Interlaced: Email and Social Networks

Despite Having 300 Million Members, Facebook is Not The Largest Social Network
In my opinion, online social networks have three distinguishing features:  1) They have profiles that enable people to express their identity 2) Ability for people to connect to these profiles 3) To be successful, there’s a greater value created by a group of people sharing than as individuals who do not.

This week, Facebook announced it has ballooned to 300 million users, far more than MySpace and certainly Twitter.  Yet, I want to assert that Facebook isn’t the largest social network, email is (we’ve talked about this before).  Recent numbers from Microsoft showed that the number of active users (although the definition of ‘active’ isn’t explained) exceeds 375 million users for Hotmail.

When you combine all of the email networks from Gmail, Hotmail, AOL, Yahoo, and the millions in Outlook at corporations all over the world –it dominates over Facebook.

Not Everyone Agrees Email and Social Networks Are The Same
I took the conversation to my own community in Twitter, and while the majority seemed to agree others respectfully suggested that “email is not a social network because:”  1) It’s private, not public, 2) Lack of profiles, and  3) Lack of discoverability of people. I’d like to quickly address why I stand by that email is the largest social network:

Social networks can be private.  Just like in real life, some communities are not for the public.  In fact, Facebook is a closed social network, very little of your personal information can be seen by the public.  Secondly, some of the most successful social networks are deployed inside of companies, just ask folks like Telligent, Mzinga, Awareness, and Jive.

Email does indeed have profiles. Many argued that email doesn’t have a profile, yet, consumer email clients all offer profiles.  For example, see Yahoo’s, Microsoft Live, (which can spur from a hotmail account) and the Google profile.  We’re encouraged to put our handle, name, location, and other demographic information.  The second place to look is within the signature of each email you receive, people put their name, company, title, contact information and whatever else they want to self-express.  In both cases people opt-in to put that information in, and make their profile information accessible to those they want to share it with.

Email profiles are discoverable and social. Some who don’t believe email is a social network will argue that the profiles are not easy to find.  A social networks will help like-minded users find each other, and some social networks even recommend others to follow. Take another look corporations that have deployed exchange server have a large directory with individual names, profiles, and groups that they belong to.  You can search for titles, locations, and groups to find who in a company may have similar needs to you.  What about in the consumer space? Yahoo encourages it’s mail users to ask and answer questions from each other –even if you don’t know them directly.  In fact, in my Yahoo profile, there’s an area that suggests people I should connect with, one which is Shel Israel, who is certainly a friend, and Microsoft Live recommends people “like you” to connect with.

Agree or Disagree, Email and Social Networks Intertwine
A few more indicators that email and social networks are starting to merge: For public social networks like Facebook, Glassdoor, Yelp, and Twitter, email is a pre-requistite to register.  Messages that you receive in Facebook or Twitter, often end up in your email stream.  Email portals are already developing social features around them, have you seen the Yahoo homepage?  It’s starting to look like a social network.

Recommendations: Approach Email and Social Tech in an Integrated Strategy
It’s too easy to focus on the shiny microblogging tools and cast incumbent technologies by the side.  Savvy communicators should factor in how email and social networks fuel each other, they should:

  • Interlace email and social efforts. In your marketing efforts, make it easy for people to share content both on social sites and through email.  Use the sharethis feature on your websites encouraging people to post content on social networks –or email to each other.  In your email marketing, make it easy for people to also share the information on their social networking profiles.
  • Prepare for applications to be build on email platforms. Recognize that email portals are becoming social platforms, and brands will soon build or sponsor applications that interact with Yahoo Mail, Microsoft Live, and whatever comes next.
  • Focus on the relationships between individuals –less on the medium.  The medium isn’t as important as the relationships between the people.  When Twitter goes down, some shift to Friendfeed, or Facebook to communicate, people have a way to find each other regardless of the medium or channel.

I hope this triggers an interesting discussion, even if you don’t agree. Would love to hear a global perspective on mobile usage, how does that factor in?

Update: On a related note,this study indicates that email usage is being eroded away by social networking sites and instant messaging. This is the type of data that will send email providers scurrying to the product roadmap to quickly integrate into the social web as quickly as possible.

  • Such great insight in this post… “Focus on the relationships between individuals –less on the medium. The medium isn’t as important as the relationships between the people.” Ultimately, this is what it all comes down to. 🙂

  • I fully agree with the last part that marketers need to relook at how they use email, esp in the context of their social strategy. Here’s one tactic we’re trying out for an Indian bank client

    I would disagree though on Email being a social network as most of us understand it. It was never designed to be ibe; the usage is mostly one to one,and so is the marketer’s approach, unlike in social. Id’s are not discoverable online ie searchable. Profiles are not compulsory eg google.I have a yahoo id for a decade now with a blank profile. And i dont know anyone who likes to be contacted by a stranger on MS’ recommendations. Would love to hear other thought leaders on this especially from the email marketing space.

  • While I see that points you are trying to make, I think the interlacing between social networks and email is somewhat frayed. Maybe Vijay but it best when he said “a social network as most of us understand it.” For me email is totally one-to-one. There’s no interaction with multiple people at one time and the discussions are on a much more professional level than those that can take place through social networks.

    Another point I would make is that emails are private interactions between people. It’s also illegal in most countries for people to publish/forward anothers emails without prior permission to do so. On social networks no such rules apply. Comments/interactions can be seen by many other people and forwarding anothers comments is common practice, eg. RT’s.

  • This is in fact a hotly debated topic. What really qualifies as a social network? There are those that think in the conventional way where a social network can only be a social network, set us as such and remains only that. I think you’re exactly right though that social networks can include more than just that. E-mail networks are in fact social and some in some ways searchable. I know I have e-mail trains that include over 50 people. I send an e-mail to all of them and that updates them on what I have to say or a photo that I want to share. This one-to-one and mass sharing is a major component of social networks.

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  • I would say that email counts as “social media” – if for no other reason that I find the term “social network” pleonastic, awkward, and unhelpful. Email is THE model for technology that enables interaction, organization, and networking (both micro and macro). Not only do social media tools like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter require email to join – they all incorporate an email-like messaging function that for many becomes it’s most useful component.

  • Jeremiah,
    You did a post in July that started this discussion. I did a blog response to it where I discussed that while it’s the communication that matters – the tools have a direct impact on the message.
    I hope that email can change, but it is difficult for people to change how they use something like email, even if the capability matures.

  • Donagh Mc Sweeney

    Thanks for sharing your experience that email is mainly 1 to 1. For me, many emails are to the team. I find that 1:1 discussions are often best on IM. What’s interesting is that Facebook has adopted IM tools, and is soon going to explore VOIP. It’s a communications platform.

  • How “social” can an email get?
    I get your point Jeremiah but where i work(specially in the Digital Communcation Departmen) we see email as an ancient tool. We rather use a DM in Twitter.

    If we stick to emails we communicate but we ignore what´s going around us.. if we use social networks we can communicate PLUS we can “listen” to what´s going around us… no?

    Good post!

  • E-mail is certainly a social network, but it has become a far less important way to connect since the popularity of FB and Twit has gone more mainstream. I’ve found that a higher % of non-spam e-mails go unopened or get deleted more easily because people use their phones to get e-mail.

    People want instant info—they don’t have time to click to open, then read. Sad but true.

  • Itbay

    Google Wave is going to revolutionize email and thus the social network

  • Hi Jeremiah,

    There is no doubt that email is a powerful and key communication device but I don’t see it being social. For me it’s a great one-to-one communication tool and great at one-to-many broadcast / promotional / informational tool but it lacks the ability the social connectivity of a Twitter or Facebook or Ning etc – the many-to-many exchange is more difficult with email.


  • Semantics are starting to kill “Social Networks” and confuse, detract its potential.

    I hope this discussion, and others like it, help improve communications and clarity on these issues and best use of terminology in the space.

    Coffee shops are social networks
    Roads are social networks
    Analog telephones are social networks

    Besides, technology converges as do social systems, global economies, cultures, language…

    Technology convergence is part of this discussion.

  • The largest social network on the planet is sewer system. It also has the largest level of engagement: almost all of its users contribute to it (create “content”) on a regular basis. 😀

  • Great discussion.

    In my opinion, email in itself is not a social network, but we are rapidly seeing service providers wrapping social tools around their web-based email management tools; adding profiles, directories, etc.

    If the same logic used for determining email as a social network were also be applied to telephones and their associated directories (profiles) we would see the telephone as the largest social network.

  • Really, really interesting post. I never thought of it that way.

    Here’s the thing. After years of “We respect your privacy….will never…your email address” how do we then consider it as open as social media?

    Of course there are plenty of people with opt-in lists. I am wondering how to be useful to people who are not on these lists.

  • There are similarities and differences between the 2 mediums. In my opinion email is just part of the link of a very big chain that is connected end to end. One cannot function necessarily without the other. Each of the aspects of social media have their place and if used effectively make the social and the business end of life blend in harmony.

  • Definitely a topic that triggers some thought and I would say that email can be classified as a “type” of social media. Email seems to be more targeted to specific people vs. the social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook, etc. While the messages posted on these outlets may contain targeted content, anyone can see/view/respond, etc. Email doesn’t provide this type of interaction therefore it is a form of social media that is a little different than the social media outlets we are all used to.

  • Dave

    I stopped reading after the “math” behind the metric of active users of Hotmail was not explored. That number is pure horsehockey, hence obviating the premise of this article. Sorry man I don’t buy it.

  • Edward Patience

    A very good note that triggers some thought and discussion. I especially liked your approach where you moved away from labels and definitions and look at functions.

    I suspect I am older than the rest of this posting audience; through my clients and experience, people over 35 communicate with FB et. al very much like they do with email…its just that social networks makes it easier and is more compelling.

    As they slowly embrace twitter, they same will hold.

    Social media is fun; email is pure workhorse. Both accomplish many of the same functions and have considerable overlap. Roll on the future!

    Nicely done.

  • Email is certainly social, and it’s also certainly a network. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a social network.

    It goes back to the public/private question. It’s not that social networks can’t be private–they obviously can. It’s that email can’t be public, at least not to the level that other forms of social media are. You can’t observe a discussion over email unless you’ve been specifically included in it. Nor can you jump in and join the conversation unless you’ve been alerted to the fact that it’s going on (by the cc’s or bcc’s of the original participants). That’s one of the unique features of social networks: the ability to *find* and join conversations.

  • Mark curzon

    Interesting comments so far. I think it is easy to get caught up in the electronic social network thing and forget all the others. Telephones, face to face anyone? Of course email is a social network, it is just a bit more clunky in some respects when compared with others and as other comments infer (eg privacy laws) commercially a bit limiting. The point, in my opinion, is to keep an eye out on all forms of social network as a portfolio of options for marketeers.

  • Jeremiah, this discussion actually pops up in the email marketing community (where I cut my teeth) quite often. I think there are a couple points worth calling out:
    1. Basically, yes it is a social network. Heck, “reply to all” is old school wall posting.
    2. It’s important to distinguish email marketing from email as an attribute. I think that always confuses the argument. The fact of having an email address as a pre-requisite for participating in social networks is true, but not ancillary to the core discussion. Most of the people discussing this do it as it from the view of the discipline of email marketing. A marketer to a consumer.
    3. In that context, social networks (fb, twitter, etc) have been a large leap forward. With traditional email marketing, brands could reach a core, permissioned, audience. However the consumer could not truly engage in dialogue. Nor were brands overly successful at reaching the next tier (the social graph of the consumer you have an address of). SNS help bridge that gap. Consumers can add content (comments, reply’s, pics) to brand conversations on FB for example. And the interactions between brand/consumer can reach the next tier via their streams.

    I think email marketers have begun morphing more into digital direct marketers as they incorporate social tools into their existing expertise. To entrench too deeply in email marketing is dangerous as consumers expect more ways to interact with brands directly beyond submitting their email address to a database.
    3. in my view

  • I think you raise very good points and you have me.

    E-mail is a social media/network.

    I would just make a distinction in that case between e-mail and social media 2.0 such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc.

    From what you are telling me, e-mail is going more social and might be able to slip in the same category.

  • Sort of agree and disagree.
    A few additional differences:
    -SN are mostly open-source and have spurred a parallel ecosystem of applications. Google Wave is the first entrant in this arena as far as I know, correct me if I’m wrong.
    -SN differentiate brands from users. FB Fan pages, etc. What’s the equivalent for email? Newsletters? How do I enter in a relationship with a brand (where I not only receive newsletters)?
    -Some SN allow asymmetrical relationships: I follow you on Twitter, you don’t follow _antonella_. So even though you don’t consider me part of your group, I am still allowed to read/learn from it. For now “BCC” is the closest resemblance to this…

  • Not a web guru like many of you folks. But scrolling through, I don`t see any comments related to distribution lists like Google Groups or Yahoo Groups (though Jeremiah refers to them generally when he mentioned tools wrapped around email)….

    I’ve been debating putting my network members on a social networking platform like Ning or Elgg, versus just creating some Google Groups. My folks are primarily Blackberry users. Information would get to them faster, and quick responses would more likely occur if I can give them email-based access to discussions… So when I think about it, Google Groups is no different from a social network platform than any other. EXCEPT for the discoverability… there’s more effort involved to discover other groups. And MAYBE folks are more likely to invite their friends, import their address book using something like Ning. For sheer efficiency, I normally would prefer a Google Group myself.

    But the visual culture of social networks like Ning is probably tipping me over on their side. Also of course the social aspect of it. On Ning I might post some personal comments about how my day is going, and maybe build rapport with colleagues that way (water cooler effect) but I’m unlikely to broadcast that kind of information through a Google Group.

    So I guess my two cents are that I agree with Jeremiah – email is a social network. It just hasn’t been as effective at certain types of interaction as networking platforms have been. In time, the two will merge or grow less distinct. By then I hope I will no longer care…. happily writing pen to paper by the sea?

  • It’s not about profile or whether or not the communication is public or private. The power of social network is about the value of social weak links and the effect of unintended audience. Take this survey as an example, if you were to send out survey of this question via email, you do have to think about who you are sending this to. In most likely case, half of the commenters won’t be on that list and the effect of the communication is reduced to half. I am here because I followed you on twitter and just happened to saw the tweets. Much the same as the communication on Facebook, the communication is carried on in public unintentionally and that weaklink effect differentiate it from the emails as a social network.

  • Based on this most recent RedWriteWeb post (, might e-mail be bifurcating – with professional/enterprise e-mail being intertwined throughout enterprise apps and excluding social e-mail, which is emerging to being solely done in the context of social networks?

  • No, email is not a social network.

  • Jeremiah, I guess it’s dependent on the indivdual, the organisation and their chosen communications medium really.

    The Online Publishers Association(OPA) conducted a recent study which found that in 2003 people spent 46% of their time online using sites which fall into the “communications” category – that is, sites whose core capabilities are email and instant messaging. By 2009, that usage dropped to 27% or a 41% decline in overall use.

  • Laurie B

    Yes, I think email is a social network. Of course, this entire discussion depends on how each individual defines the term “social network,” which to me is a web-based way to connect *people* to other *people* based on all the various relationships they have. It doesn’t matter whether it happens in private or for the whole world to see. I can have a private aspect on FB or Twitter, if I choose, and it is no less social. And while a one-to-many relationship may be MORE social…a one-to-one relationship is still social.

    Some tools for cultivating this communication have aspects that make for a broader, more interesting and appealing experience.

    …my 2 cents….

  • Jeremiah

    Agree with most points. The only thing that makes email less “social” in my opinion is the difficulty to measure one’s social influence.

    I don’t know how many contacts I have exactly on my gmail. Many email contacts are strangers so they won’t be influenced by me very much. Finally the fear of spamming always makes me think twice about email blast. Do agree corporations need an integrated email social strategy and email will evolve. These are just some challenges I see.

  • Pointless

    Is this really a meaningful question?

  • Peter

    The whole idea of communications is evolving at an increasingly rapid pace with the advent of social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and all their respective derivatives and ecosystems. Us old guys remember the original ‘killer app’ for the internet was email. We used to live, eat, sleep and breathe in email. Social networks are a natural evolution of the communications and collaboration process and will likely replace email as the preferred means of enterprise communications…over time of course. I find I use the newer tools much more frequently on a personal basis and rely less and less on email. However, in the business world email still rules.

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  • I really appreciate your connection between email marketing and social media in this post. Email to often gets overlooked amid the hype, but it’s really a versatile and valuable medium.

    While your points ring true I think it’s important to make a distinction between social networks and social networking sites or platforms. Strictly speaking social networks transcend the realm of the internet, while social networking sites/platforms exist only on the web. Your point that profiles do in fact exist on services like gmail and yahoo is well taken, but these developments are relatively recent and while the use of signatures is fairly ubiquitous I see it far more in use for inter/intra-organizational communications and almost never in personal communications. So what does that mean? I would assert that google, yahoo, etc have social networking platforms which use email as a backbone, meaning that email itself is a medium and not a network.

    Furthermore, if we’re to look at email objectively as a means of communication compared with say facebook or twitter, it’s far more powerful. Easily attach or imbed media? Email yes, twitter/facebook no. Interoperability between disparate networking sites (e.g. gmail and yahoo mail)? Email – hell yes, facebook/twitter – not really. Facebook connect and oauth are beginning to change that, but in doing so are such services just becoming more like email?

    Great post, and once again I really appreciate that you brought up email.

  • I do not agree with the idea of email as a social network.It does not convince me, despite the fact, that I could use profiles with my eMail account at Yahoo, Google, and others.
    It needs an account to use Yahoo as an eMail Service for example. This reason for, I open my accounts at some Mail Providers. I do not open them to have a profile there and I do not use this profiles as my social profiles. They are simply neccessary to use eMail.

    How many profiles of eMail Providers are completed, how many are updated, how many would have been created, if eMail could be used without them? Creating a social network this way wouldn’t work.

    Defining eMail as a social network makes no sense to me.

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  • Maayan, Thanks for taking the time.

    Wilfried. What you may not realize is that the email providers are actually building social networking services right into email –we just don’t stop to realize what they’re doing.

    related: I updated the post and added a link showing that email is waning compared to activity in social networks. As a result, social networking sites will quickly need to integrate even faster to email.

  • vic hansen

    Interesting post. My own view is that, while e-mail is a social networking tool, there is a distinction between it and a social network in that the social network embodies and facilitates a structure of relationships between people that e-mail does not manage. If we call e-mail a social network we abandon a quite useful distinction.

    Social networks are higher up the stack than e-mail and, as you say, many of them use e-mail as a communications medium. Compare this to the seven layer OSI communications model and e-mail is down at the network level while social networks are up in the applications layer.

    At the same time, I think you are spot-on in saying that e-mail and social networks are converging and that they need to be managed in a coherent way. Google Wave shows at least some elements of what the future looks like. What is needed is a conceptual model that recognises the different degrees of abstraction and structure in the social and communication environment.

    At the lowest level, we have communications media – e-mail, blog posts, wall-writing, twitter messages etc. At the highest level we have the real interpersonal relationships that they implement – friend, family member, priest/parishioner, spammer/spammee and so on.
    In between we have some tools for managing the relationship space – directories, Facebook, etc.

    What do you think?

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  • Jeremiah, you make the point that email service providers must move to make the email experience more like social networking services, which I agree with and believe they’re doing (especially gmail, which is what I use). But what about social networks that are becoming more like email? The facebook direct messaging system (the original, not chat) functions just like a dummed down email client, only you can’t send messages into our out of the system. Myspace recently added actual email. I think that’s why it makes sense to refer to Facebook as a platform because they use many different communication media: email-like direct messaging system, chat, and soon voice. In the case of email services that are added profiles, I really see that as an added layer alongside email capabilities, because (at least with gmail, I’ve little experience with others) it is not necessary to have a profile to use email and it’s not necessary to use email to have a profile.

    Defining what particular sites are or are not “social networking” sites or platforms is more a discussion of semantics than anything else. Thus on this point I’ve come to agree with Vic that “If we call e-mail a social network we abandon a quite useful distinction.” But what is in a name? As web strategists we (I include myself only out of convenience) should examine the characteristics of various platforms and seek to understand how the presence of various platform pieces (e.g. email, chat, voice comm, profiles, photo galleries, journals, etc.) impacts the way users interact with each other through the platform. Is it not that understanding which should guide our actions as marketers/business people?

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  • Yes, this is a topic we are discussing in the Netherlands as well. The question was in the first place, what will be the next phase in email. If you have limited time, how do you browse 100+ emails a day? Do you want 100+ emails a day?
    As you look at the emails f.i. from LinkedIn once a week with updates on contacts, it is easy to scroll down and see the highlights.

    I react on these when i.e. somebody took another job or accomplished something ‘big’. In this way I see a direct link between social networks and being active.

    Email on its merites has to evolve, because I receive 100+ emails a day and I am looking forward to ideas how to handle this…

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  • I really like this post and the discussions that it sparks.

    You’re right that people were already able to build social networks with emails and I wonder whether the real difference is not that
    – email has been taken over by corporations and IT’s
    – people largely control their social profiles.

    The real battle may then be between Google, Facebook … on one end and all the Corp IT along with the enterprise 2.0 sw companies on the other end.

    People have one primary “access point”/ profile on the net and every one competes for the few hours of attention end users (who are employees as well) will spend on “their online social activity”.

    So should enterprise build their own social networks and diable access to Facebook in the enterprise, with the risk of cutting its employees to where their clients are … or should they embrace Facebook connect

    I put my bet on Google Wave.


  • Jeremiah –

    Thanks for your continued support of email as a social network. Many have said that email is the “original” (online) social network. Clearly I am biased as I work at an Email Service Provider (ESP), but my company – Blue Sky Factory – also spends a ton of time thinking about and living in the world of social media. We’ve built in Share With Your Network (SWYN) functionality into the application, but it’s still slow going. I think to the average subscriber, this form of “email sharing” is very new.

    That being said, your post seems to focus more on email in the one-to-one sense. Human to human. Friend to friend. Co-worker to co-worker. I think if you expand the “email is a social network” to “email MARKETING is a social network” the claim makes more sense.

    Do you agree? Love to hear your thoughts…

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

    P.S. Wondering if/when you’ll be adding the “Send me followup comments via e-mail” feature to your blog. Possible?

  • I think your most telling point is to focus on the individual not the medium. Unfortunately aggregating the information we know about people and be able to see interactions with them across all mediums in context is still very hard. Plaxo showed some early promise, but lost its way. I looked at Skydeck as a way to get a better view of voice communications. I am currently looking at Gist which is trying to take this on, but even they don’t get that the “address book” on your PC and phone must be the access point to really solve the problem.

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  • You actually looked at your Yahoo profile? That’s sad 😉