Can social networks replace email?

Here’s an updated and expanded version of my previous post for Joka Strategist.
Can social networks replace email?
There’s a lot of debate going on about how and when social networks will replace emails. On one hand, the proponents of the idea claim that we should look at teenagers (who are shunning emails in favour of social networks) to see what future has in store for us, whereas on the other hand,  the staunch supporters of email services refuse to believe that something as important as emails could be replaced with something else. Apparently, the odds seem to be in favour of social networks taking over a very large share of email services. However, the reasons put forward by many evangelists of the idea are diluted by subtle sales pitches and tend to miss the bigger picture. For instance, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, says that what teenagers do today becomes norm for the rest of us tomorrow. This is not entirely true and Sheryl was severely criticized for making such a far-fetched contention based on unwarranted assumptions.

Interestingly, a simple answer to the debate can be found in the history of social networks. Clay Shirky in his prophetic book "Here Comes Everybody" mentions that the origin of the entire social computing phenomenon can be traced back to the day when email services started including a seemingly insignificant feature called "Reply All". In fact, all social computing can be crudely viewed as a super "Reply All" feature on your email account. And since, email is the genesis of social computing, it's probably logical to expect that better and more evolved email services (social networks) will eventually replace traditional email services.

Widespread usage of social web has created a new breed of customers; they are demanding radical levels of transparency in both private and public sector firms. It’s easy to see that traditional email services were never designed for such levels of openness and thus, will slowly but inevitably give way to open social networks. More and more private firms are engaging customers on open social channels, not only for creating buzz but also for customer services. Companies are realizing that delivering customer services on an open channel creates radical levels of accountability among employees and enhances trust among customers. Public sector agencies are not too far behind either. For instance, government agencies in the US (as mandated by open and transparent government directive) have already started open communications with citizens; a large chunk of government communications (G2G, G2C and C2C) that traditionally happened on emails is being ported to open social networks.

Over the years, many market research firms and independent analysts have published reports that provide ample evidence to prove that social networks are indeed replacing emails. For instance, Gartner's social software prediction for this year says - "By 2014, social networking services will replace e-mail as the primary vehicle for interpersonal communications for 20 percent of business users." -

The adoption of social media tools in company intranets have been shown to decrease email and telephone communications by a sizable extent, as much as 30% or more. This suggests that social tools offer real benefits that can’t be achieved by telephone and email communication. In fact, our habitual usage of email for collaboration could be quite a hindrance to our productivity. As organizations learn to use social tools for collaborative pursuits, the usage of emails for such purposes is bound to take a back seat.

According to a study done in 2005, almost half of Web-using teenagers prefer to chat with friends via instant messaging rather than e-mail. Another research by Morgan Stanley and comSource found that the number of social networking users surpassed email users in September 2009 whereas overall social networking usage surpassed email usage way back in November 2007; Facebook has replaced email as the most popular way to stay in touch with friends online.

Unsurprisingly, college students rarely use email and when they do it’s to communicate with teachers, parents and others who may be less connected to them in social networks. It’s pretty clear that we are slowly starving email, demoting it to a shorter and short list of appropriate uses. Eventually, it will fall off the edge, like fax is now that we can scan and send attachments more easily than using dedicated fax machines.

Lastly, going back to the “Reply All” analogy; if something is good enough to be shared with several people by clicking "Reply All" button; it's probably good enough to be shared with a larger audience as well. Using emails to share such things is tantamount to burying them and rendering them useless for future. Perhaps the right place for such things is a wiki or a blog where they can be preserved as organizational social capital.

Besides the obvious reasons such as simplicity and utility, the unprecedented success of email can be largely attributed to its open, decentralized and interoperable standard. Social networks could be considered as a viable alternative to email only if their evolution follows a similar path of open, standard and interoperable standard.

In conclusion, it’d be foolish to believe that email services will cease to exist any time soon; they are extremely useful for asynchronous, private one-to-one interactions. However, with radical levels of transparency being demanded by people and the imperative to store social capital for posterity, the usage of email as a key communication channel will certainly be questioned in time to come.

·          Gartner’s Five Social Software Predictions for 2010 and Beyond -
·          The Death of E-Mail (Slate Magazine) -
·          Email Sharing’s Not Dead Yet (Mashable) -
·          The End Of Email - Celebrating The Imminent Death (SocialMediaToday) - 


  1. Social Media can be considered as a super extension to 'reply all' but with limitations. With 'Reply All', one can add many additional email addresses irrespective of the host. But with SM, one can't send open messages to users not on the same network.

    Till such limitation exists, SM will co-exist with email.

  2. I do not agree that social networks can be an alternative to email systems. Within formal world of business or legal or state level communication, email will always remain the preferred channel as it has an organized structure to hold and maintain the communication and can be referred to for evidence collection as well. Social media is an alternative channel of communication and will continue to operate in its own market space to address the untapped need of open social communication.
    Thus, in my opinion, email as well as social media, both will survive within their own legitimate space.