Mar 26, 2009

Has social media's rise in popularity made e-mail the rotary phone of the 21st century?

Nielsen Online's recent report that users in the US and around the world now use social networks more than e-mail has added new fuel to the fire in the debate about whether social media will replace e-mail as the communication tool of choice.

Have we reached the point where more people will be communicating with one another using Facebook and MySpace than e-mail? Does this mean we are witnessing the end of e-mail and online communication as we know it?

No. At least, not yet anyway.

While social media's popularity is clearly on the upswing, that doesn't mean e-mail's relevance as a means of communication is suffering a subsequent dip in popularity.

E-mail still has several advantages over social networks that help it maintain its position at the head of the interpersonal communications class. The privacy it provides and its ability to record and track conversations as well as retain accountability help e-mail continue to be the best fit for doing business. Facebook and MySpace can serve as a less formal means to discuss business but e-mail's aforementioned strengths translate into weaknesses with social networks that keep them from becoming a true means of performing business.

E-mail also remains popular with users and marketers alike as a means to deliver newsletters, coupons, and discounts. Its still a very cost-effective means for brands to deliver these types of ad content to consumers.

This isn't to say social networks don't play a considerable role in online user communications. However, the content of these communications is generally less substantial than e-mail. The brief comment one user writes on another's Facebook wall generally won't be at the potentially deeper level of conversation that e-mail can allow.

For example, you can find out even the most trivial and fleeting activities your friends are performing via a Facebook comment and be able to respond in kind. But it's unlikely a friend would have e-mailed you that he or she just finished watching a television show and now is snacking on pretzels.

For more involved conversations, e-mail remains the better option. While Facebook and other social networks can spark the conversation, e-mail can expand and build upon it, allowing it more room to grow in complexity. So while a conversation may begin on a social network, it's likely to then bleed into e-mail the longer and more involved it becomes.

What all of this talk about the battle between social networks and e-mail neglects, however, is that another competitor could very easily pass both of the contenders, making this argument a moot point.

People love their mobile devices, so much so that texting (or some new text/e-mail hybrid) is one challenger that may eventually assume e-mail's communication crown. In terms of convenience, it's much easier to send a friend a text from your phone when you're out and about. E-mails and social networks still depend on the availability of a computer. Relatively speaking, it's easier to carry a phone with you than a PC.

Another force to reckon with is the growing popularity of the iPhone, which combines the convenience of a mobile phone with the power and Internet accessibility of a PC. If the iPhone really takes over the mobile market as it has been projected to do, it will have a considerable impact on how people communicate. In addition to aiding and abetting e-mail usage, the iPhone also provides a chat feature that is more like instant messaging, elevating the experience of using your phone to send text messages above and beyond mere texting.

So while e-mail should still be seen as the leading online communication tool, there's a very real possibility that within a few years not only will social networks pass it by but both channels will be left behind in the formidable wake of mobile communications.

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