Why Social Networks Won't Kill E-mail (or Search)

Ian Lurie

broken email
Stop me if you’ve heard any of these:

Social networks will change the world!

Social networks will be the e-mail killer!

Social networks have Google quaking in its billion-dollar boots!!!!!

None are completely true.

Bloggers are engaging in a little hyperbole to grab some attention. Social media is definitely a major change, and it’s finally booming after years of lurking in the background. But it won’t replace any current communications tools. I’ll explain why in a moment. First a quick primer:

What’s a Social Network?
Lots of fancy definitions out there, but let’s keep it simple. A social network is a site or set of sites that lets people communicate in a semi-controlled environment, usually using tools built into the network itself. MySpace is one. Facebook is another.

Social Media is worth mentioning, too – it’s a broader category, and a more powerful one. Sites like Slashdot.org, Digg.com and Technorati all qualify. So does almost any blog. Any environment that lets the audience participate directly in the distribution of news or information could potentially be called ‘social media’.

All very cool stuff. Major changes are in store. But the old standbys will stick around:

Email: Still the Best One-to-One Communications Tool

There are rumblings, and some younger internet users are turning to Facebook and Myspace as their communications tools.

But email still wins out as a superior communications tool. And as users move from the dorm room to the workplace, they’ll switch to email as an easier way to get messages to folks. They’ll keep their social network accounts to connect with friends and colleagues, but email will be how they communicate after that initial connection.

And, expect to see the biggest social networks roll out their own e-mail platforms. [email protected], anyone?

Network Pollution Will Win Out

Hugh Macleod just coined “Hugh’s Law”. It demonstrates the biggest problem facing social networks:

 “All online social networks eventually turn into a swampy mush of spam.”

It’s true, so far. For example, MySpace has become a cesspool of tacky spam pages and pornographers. E-mail discussion lists, once the primary way for groups to communicate, have fallen away.

As new social networks spring up, and old ones get polluted, users will move from one network to the other. Then old tools come back as the spammers move on (usenet, anyone?). There’s a more in-depth post on this at Clay Shirky.

Will network pollution kill social networks? No. They’ll cope, just like email has. But it will create increasing drag as the networks grow.

Search Is Different

Don’t look for any wars between social networks and search engines. Yes, the business entities will vie for control by acquiring each other, developing competing toolsets, etc.. But search as a tool is here to stay, and social networks are finding their place, too.

Social and search are complimentary. The features from one will find their way into the other, yes. But we’ll have the two as distinct toolsets for a long, long time.

Social Networks Will Disrupt Media

What social networks can do, though, is disrupt media. Since the first days of Slashdot, social media has had the power to go around the traditional press, and to shine a light in some uncomfortable places.

Steve Rubel’s point that social networks will foster transparency in PR is the real power of this new channel. If the audience is asking the questions, and if they can go talk amongst themselves whenever they want to, then PR professionals will have to dedicate more time to direct, honest communication. Anything else could cause negative sentiment to spread like wildfire. Alberto Gonzales wouldn’t be sweating it out in the Senate today if bloggers hadn’t kept the US Attorney firings alive as a story.

Overhyped, But Still A Game-Changer
Is social media overhyped? Yes. Everyone’s gotten swept up in Social Mania.

Interesting times are upon us, no question – social networks are powerful, and they’re going to affect change. But they aren’t going to end email or replace search or any other online channels.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at www.ianlurie.com

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