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.

122 Replies to “Email: The First –and Largest– Social Network”

  1. the first & largest social network is humanity, right?

    all of these things online are extensions of that. email is one way of communicating. facebook another. twitter another, etc. they all overlap & merge slightly. it’s all about finding ways to make it easier for people to communicate without any problems of time & distance.

  2. Agreed Jeremiah. Really the whole internet has been a vast social network from the get go, since Usenet got setup at Duke. But email really tuned up the communication. I think it has all been a long evolution, the internet was created to “share” information across distance. We have just been doing a lot better at perfecting the social tools available recently.

  3. I’m a bit freaked out right now, because I generally agree with your perspective, and I learn a lot from you.

    This time, however, I’d argue that email is a great one-to-one (or one-to-many) communication tool, but lacks the “social network” component, as I interpret it.

    Then, I consulted Wikipedia, where Social Network is defined as “a social structure made of nodes (which are generally individuals or organizations) that are tied by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as values, visions, ideas, financial exchange, friendship, sexual relationships, kinship, dislike, conflict or trade.”

    This is how I think about social networks. This definition implies that a social network has a level of sharing, of “many to many” communications, and transparency. According to this definition, early online bulletin boards would fit — and would be my response to your question.

    Email, meanwhile, is a communication tool, but I don’t see how the “interdependency” element fits in.

    Great discussion, would love to hear thoughts…

  4. Hey Thanks Ginger. You’re freaked out? no freaks allowed. I think in this context, (and I should have made this clear) we’re talking in the digital realm. Some have suggested BBS systems were the first, or early, and I buy that. However they didn’t get mainstream adoption like email has.

  5. For me, a defining characteristic of a social network is the ability to easily explore and create external connections with people outside of my peer/friend group.
    Although email is indeed moving in this direction with collaborative features, built-in chat clients and developments like Google wave. It is essentially a closed network.
    For me bulletin boards, and forums would qualify as the first social networks.

    Interesting take though.

  6. Generally agree with the logic here. Enabling people to connect is the essence of both social networking and email. But while it’s an interesting comparison I wonder if it’s oversimplified. Networks like Facebook et al allow people to connect with other people they don’t already know around certain interests. Serendipity in a bottle, in a way…even more so for Twitter.

    I suppose that could technically happen over email but it would be a heck of a lot harder to facilitate. That’s why email is generally considered to silo information inside companies and knowledge management exists as a distinct segment within technology.

  7. Jeremiah, your concept looks good at first glance, but I think it’s stretching the idea much further than is realistic.

    E-mail is really just a technology that allows people to communicate – it’s the underpinnings. If that qualifies, then you have to include the Web as a social network of its own, and the Internet as a whole as a social network. In fact, the US postal system and its partners in every country around the world (plus UPS, DHS, FedEx…) would be the ultimate social network – they all help people connect and communicate.

    Here’s a quick snippet of how postal mail meets your qualifications:
    1) profiles (people have addresses and sign their letters)
    2) ability to connect to each other (the act of sending or responding to physical mail)
    3) do something useful (spreads news (less so know than before), handle commerce (catalog sales and bills), share photos and collaborate by sending ideas and docs)

    I think it would be more accurate to say that e-mail providers are hoping to harness the technology in order to become large social networks.

    This doesn’t take away from the use and wonder of e-mail (it’s become mundane, but damn it’s still really cool when you think about what we can do with it. E-mail is different than social networks and that’s okay. It’s even a good thing in many respects. 🙂

  8. As I tweeted:

    By your logic the telephone would be the one of the first social networks. And emails don’t necessarily have profiles or signatures: like the phone, emails are simply address-based systems. Even more to the point, I think the real value of social networks is the fact that they are discoverable: email is too private to be a “network” since others cannot participate unless they were explicitly invited. Without the “observation” element I just don’t see your claim as reasonable.

    Anyhow, food for thought…


  9. I actually see that some social networks, like Facebook, are eclipsing email and other forms of communication for some groups–for example–my 22 yr old son rarely uses his email–only facebook messages. When I ask his friends if they talked to him lately their answer inevitably is–yeah–I “talked” to him on Facebook!!

  10. I am definitely seeing my social network communications crossing into email and this is accelerating especially with the ease email works on mobile. So I receive all notifications via email and in many cases (eg FriendFeed & Posterous) it™s easier to respond from email. Gmail™s threaded conversations makes keeping track of the interactions a breeze

  11. Like Ginger, I always value your thoughts but I think you are stretching on this one. Email is akin to the postal service – social media is more like a cocktail party/trade show – very different. You also dismiss BBS as they were never mainstream, that is not important, they were social networks exactly as we see them today. BIX/compuserve had all the benefits and values of a social network and we can and should learn much from them. The only reason for lower volume was user connectivity – not many people had a dial up modem. The communities on these services however were great and joined people across the world in a mind blowing way at the time. If we use volume as a factor, we could dismiss twitter/facebook as they have so little volume compared to the telephone.

  12. Sounds like there is a difference in defining what is a social network. I do agree that email was likely one of the first digital networks. But I think that it merely connected and strenghtened your existing strong (offline) connections. I believe that our definition of social networks has evolved (thanks to 2.0 technologies) to recognize that a social network’s interdependencies allows one to discover weak ties and convert them into strong ties.

  13. Good discussion, I dig this… I like Alex & Terry’s points, so now am thinking through this some more. Here are the elements that I think make a “social network” — and why email doesn’t fit in this category:

    Social networks (in the digital space, as you mentioned:
    1)are open for all to see/ engage. While Twitter & FB have private messaging capabilities, this is not their primary value. The value of these networks is that others can see the conversation and opt-in to participate in it.
    2)allow new connections to form. As in this thread, I don’t know Alex or Terry, but my thoughts are being informed by their input. Couldn’t happen via email.
    3)foster collaboration. In an environment of openness, with new voices being heard, people can come to new conclusions, new ideas, new outcomes. Really hard to do this via email, save but for the much-aligned “reply all” function (the fact that so many people hate “Reply All” email conversations underscores the idea that it’s hard to collaborate via email).


  14. In the digital era I would strongly argue that BBS’ were the first social media networks. While the Internet was still being established at an education level with researchers at UCLA, UCSB (my alma mater), Stanford and later connected to 12 others nodes (more history here BBS’s were popping up as personal computers became more common (outside the terminal world of large corp. & universities). BBS’ were the first glimmer of larger adoptions of computer technology and interconnectivity on a free and pay level. The WELL among many other pay BBS’ were the place to be if you had a computer and wanted to share content (the original P2P model) or communicate with others.

    Commercially available email systems were not yet as common as BBS’s as I recall. At a minimum I would say BBS’ and Email were developed at the same time. I think BBS’ had the edge on early adoption, but were quickly overtaken as email became more usable. Writing in VI on UNIX terminals was a royal pain in the butt. Email seemed to really take off when PINE was made available and shortly after commercial ventures like AOL simplified the user interface of email making it a ubiquitous tool. After that BBS’ were left in the dust particularly as Internet access was opened to more universities and commercialized through dial-up. At that point BBS’ went the way of the dinosaur, but I’m sure some folks still make use of such systems.

  15. One last thought… “wide adoption” is relative. The percentage of activity online for computer uses was as great for BBS as the Internet is for modern computer users. It’s all relative. It would be easy to say based on total users that BBS were not widely adopted by total users of the Internet today. Percentage wise BBS were very commonly used by those who wanted to share information & content as well as network. It was just much much much more kluge.

  16. Of course the big difference is that in services like Facebook the social network is explicit and visible. On Facebook I can see the friend networks of my friends. But I cannot see others’ email contact lists.

  17. A lot of interesting positions –interesting how everyone has a different take on it depending on history and experience. I think it’s safe to say that regarding the future: email and social networks are going to have more in common than apart.

  18. Jim Goldstein talks about BBS systems and commercially available email systems. I recall Compuserve (and similar) BBS systems being around in the mid-1980’s along with the Western Union EasyLink email system (primarily serving a business audience) and MCI Mail – focused on personal use. The desire was there to have more robust communications, but the lack of bandwidth held people back.

    Email is – from my perspective – just an electronic version of one-to-one or one-to-many communication. You could create “redilists” for telex machines in the late 1970’s and blast out an message from one-to-many – and I bet that famous “pampheteers” like Thomas Paine, had some kind of contact list for his distribution of political flyers.

    The BBS world – although it was similar to social networks – had one, key differentiating feature…communications were interest-related. Social media, for the first time introduces the truly social aspect of communicating. Once we moved to communicating all of the time (email cells phones, texting) the notion of face-to-face communication dropped off. No more sitting around a cup of coffee or planning reunions or having teenagers all gather at the home of the kid with the most liberal parents – just go to Facebook and get together. The tactile, auditory and visual impact gets lost – so photos. videos are added to enrich the experience. However, the line between a public and private self is starting to get blurred. Some think that is fine, but it does have an impact on how people perceive intimacy – but that discussion is getting off topic here.

  19. Disagree completely. Email is merely a carrier pigeon. There is no intrinsic value in a body of emails beyond the details of the person who sent the emails to you in the first place. What can you DO with all that ‘data’? Truth is, nothing. Xobni and Gist are betting the bank that their products will be compelling because they will go on to tell you something useful about the people you interact with via email. That information, in so far it is actually useful, is already known or can be found easily elsewhere so where is the value add? A photo of the person sending you the mail appears in your inbox along with the missive? Uhm… Let us not forget that by the time we die we will have on average about 80 relationships of consequence outside of immediate family. The whole social network phenomenon in its present guise is a fun but ultimately irrelevant stop on our journey to harnessing technology to enhance the human condition.

    Stephen Barnes

  20. I love thought pieces like this, but I agree with some commenters that by your standards, you would have to agree that if email is a social network, than so are mobile phones and the post office (ways of connecting people).

    To me, what is lacking in these services is DISCOVERABILITY. When you send email, you generally send it to people you know, and receive it (the non-spam, anyway) from people you know. Same with phone calls and letters. Not always, but mainly. With something like Facebook, though, there are many opportunities to discover people because you can see who they’re talking to, where they’re going with whom and so forth.

  21. Stephen,

    I could argue that Email has far more functionality than Twitter.

    Mark, CSV files can help with discovering new contacts, you can import your records to find email addresses.

    That actually brings up an important point: Many social networks populate their users’ social graphs with email contacts.

  22. That’s a great thought. It seems that Google Wave will be that nicely integrated social network and email platform?

    All the social networks out there serve their purposes, but it is truly getting inefficient to manage so many communication channels.

  23. I’m curious what the demographics are of most of your respondents (and commenters) are. This self-fulfilling observation may be the favorite right now, but I feel is hardly an indicator of what the majority is moving towards.

    I rarely, if ever, have emailed any of my real friends; sparingly exchanged words with family via email.

  24. BBS’s did get widespread attention and connections. Things like FidoNet allow messages – bulletin board topics, and email messages to be sent around the world.

    And there were LOTS of BBS’s in the U.S. and all around the world. Of course as someone else mentioned there were other services before BBS’s although they were expensive for the bandwidth / messaging capability that they provided.

    I think most of the recent people that got on the Internet would not have done so if they didn’t think that “everyone else” was on the Internet. *Some* of us … early adopters … and computer / communications enthusiasts were on a lot earlier.

    If someone isn’t irritated by the abbreviation “LOL” then they haven’t been in this kind of communications, on the Internet, since the late 80’s or early 90’s. I have.

    The largest Social Network is the Internet. Probably second only to the Telephone. Everthing else is just protocols or applications that facilitate these being a productive social network.

  25. In 1998 I started an entertainment-related “social network” named URBANTAINMENT that ran purely and solely on email. After 9 months it became a money-spinner for me. A year later I had left my job and was never worried about an income. In hindsight that project was interactive, contained 90% user-generated content, facilitated communication between and among members and was largely social.

    So I fully agree that email is the first social network. That it is the largest is debatable though.

    50% (half of all stats are made up)of all email sent is either crap or spam (same thing actually). That means that 50% of all email sent and received does not facilitate communication between people or create interaction of any sort.

    Then there is chain email (send this to 10 people if you love the Lord), which I guess makes up another 10% of the remaining 50%.

    Then there are opt-in newsletters, which I assume gets (maybe) read and discarded because we have RSS now.

    Then IM is slowly replacing email as an inter-office communications platform (my colleague Vish IM’ed me while I’m typing this to ask which price list on our server is the most recent one)

    I guess if email was a live entity and decided to take over the world
    tomorrow it could due to sheer volume, but as far as being the largest “social network” goes.. not so..

  26. Email’s a post office. And a typical social networking site is a cafe. Their functions are different. While one enables communication, the other enables conversation. I fail to understand the core concept here.

  27. Thank you Jeremiah for a great article. I completely agree with you. On my mind email is the best and easiest way of communication.

    I remember time when email was the only way of communication in internet for me. The name of the network was Echo and that was really like a social network with a couple thousand people.

  28. There’s some really interesting idea in here.

    No doubt e-mail is social media, in much the same way that phones are. But our expectations from social media has moves on from just a method of communication to reflecting something of the meaning of those relationships. An e-mail address book or In Box doesn’t give any indication as to how deep that relationship is, whereas “social networks” do. They also enable us to network with our contacts networks, which wouldn’t easily be possible unless e-mail address books were public.

    But the big difference between e-mails as social networks is the level and nature of communication. To write an e-mail, either to a single individual or group of people, you have to have purpose. If people receive an e-mail without purpose they consider it spam. Conversely, snippets of anything count as valid communication on social networks and these are often the most valuable bits of communication: posts with great links or requests for help or advice that often would never make it to e-mail. They keep dialogue going between contacts without the excuse to kick it off that e-mail often needs.

    We encourage our members to take their e-mail address books containing hundreds of redundant business contacts and import those relationships into WeCanDo.BIZ, where you’ll then get told when any one of those contacts has a business need. This may be an opportunity for you directly; or at least a great way to start dialogue again as you offer help where you don’t have a solution, but can offer advise and win kudos. How often do you get e-mails from long forgotten business contacts; or respond to them when you do?

    Only social networks make it easy to have that level of ongoing conversation in a way that your contacts wouldn’t consider intrusive. Maybe e-mail is a social network, but it’s not hard to see why better social networks are working towards replacing it.

    Ian Hendry
    CEO, WecanDo.BIZ

  29. Jeremiah,
    I very much like your take here and do not believe it’s a stretch to say that email is the first and largest social network. As David Daniels points out in his 6/12 Email Marketing Forecast – email is the primary communication channel for 90% of US individuals online. There is no question it’s the largest.

    Those who believe BBS was the first may have a point, but I definitely agree with you that as social networks develop, email & social are going to have much more in common than not, and that email will likely “continue this path of domination.”

    Email IS social and the rise of social networks is not killing email, as many have speculated it would, but is in many ways making it much more valuable.

    Thanks for another insightful post!

  30. With all due respect, I disagree.
    E-mail and Social networks are two different things, albeit they are a medium of communication.
    email can be part of a social network ( eg facebook email.) but email on its own (eg gmail) , can not be defined as a social network, its just a tool.

    a social network is much bigger than email — with many more tools, of which btw email can be a part of.
    Bottom line — email is just a tool, not a social network.

  31. Excellent point Paramendra. I’ll offer 100 bucks to any employee who goes to his employer and pursuades them to let him replace his business email address with a social networking contact instead.

  32. Where does mobile fit in (or phone for that matter). It is a social network and a very big one, much more interactive then email and more personal…

  33. It’s all been one, constantly evolving “killer app”, from email to IM to Facebook & Twitter and every variant in between, all part of the development of ever-changing community, defined by interaction in which the primary criteria for relationship is, given access to the web, shared ideas. I think it’s safe to say that ordinary users can’t possibly imagine where it’s all headed. It sure is a great time to be alive though.

  34. Jeremiah, this is exactly what users have been telling us.

    In fact we strongly believe that contact-centric social networking combined with your favorite communications tools will be the way users will work 2-3 years from now.

    Contactmind takes that new approach, serving as the hub to all your contacts and communications. Nurturing, ranking and sharing these into a new level of business relationship building.


  35. Interesting discussion – there is a tendency to blur the technology and the content – as David Armano points with his reference to campfires! 🙂 Email is a technology for delivering content. How many emails are forwarded along? This is certainly a form of social networking. As for points about email and spam/unwanted email – what percent of Facebook posts are complete and total worthless crap? Well over 50% I’m sure – do I really care what OZ character anybody is?? As is also well pointed out – the blurring of lines between email and social networking will continue, but both will continue to have unique value propositions which will require the participation in both forms of communication.

  36. While I enjoy the concept, I respectfully disagree.

    Personally, I don’t think email is any more a social network than the USPS or the telephone system.

    Email is a predecessor — social networks are one-to-many-to-other-many-with-permission (and encouragement).

  37. Discussions such as these are probably a sign that these modes of communications are maturing and moving towards mainstream – although there is still quite a distance to go! This is a great topic to tackle Jeremiah, because it is evoking such a range of feedback – and that means thought. Many of my initial thoughts as I read the original post have been stated above. In particular, comments related to the difference between communications type (closed, single-stream vs open, multi-stream), confusing technologies and tools with the social function, and most importantly, limiting the concept of ‘social networking’ to anything that uses specific technologies rather than accepting that human beings have been involved in social networking whenever there are more than two persons relating to one another. I won’t add to any of these comments, since they have already been well-stated by others.

    This is what I will add: recently, I have been involved in an increasing number of discussions that essentially come down to understanding the difference between using social networking and using social media, which I believe to be two different, though related, concepts. This discussion around email pushes beyond these high level definitions to reveal a more basic gap in our understanding: how exactly do we define what-ever-it-is we’re doing with these technologies? If social networking is fundamentally about a persistent relationship between more than two individuals, then any number of tools (or services)can be applied to support, extend or sustain that relationship. This does not necessarily make them social networking tools – that just describes how they are being used. So can email be used as a social networking tool? Yes, we do it all the time. Does using email imply that you are part of a social network? Not necessarily – it would depend on HOW you are using it. In contrast FB, Twitter, LinkedIn etc. are all services that (typically) are built around a defined, persistent relationship, so they emerge from and reflect back a social network. These services depend on a social network existing around which the service is formed, whereas email is a communication tool that exists outside of a social network, but can be utilized as a support tool.

    Well I have rambled quite long enough, I just realized and still haven’t made the point I wanted to at the beginning! What we need is an agreed definition of social networking as a social function, that is based on personal and group sociological concepts and allows for the utilization of a dynamically changing technology environment to support and extend relationships.

  38. While Email may have some attributes that are common with social networking e.g. Profiles, Information sharing – these may be necessary conditions but not sufficient.

    I think there is a paradigm change we are looking at here. As you move from Email towards Social Networks world becomes more open and less cautious. My Email tags would read Confidentiality, Cautiousness, Selectiveness, Restricted, Controlled as opposed to Openess, Freedom etc. for the social networks. We are moving from “this information should be seen by ONLY these people” to “this can be seen by ANY one”. Email and Twitter would be good examples, the two extremes. With Twitter, your tweets are visible to ANY one. Social networks like Facebook would fall in between; so that your information is typically shared with NOT everyone, but with a wider group of friends.

    You can, ofcourse, apply filters (e.g. Groups) in social networks and constrain them like Email. But they are at their best when Open, while Email inherently has specific or targeted audience.

    Collaboration. While some may argue that you can collaborate through Email too, but its value comes out best in Social networks. For a simple reason that Email was primarily aimed at communication. I always feel that Emails have that passive element in them as opposed to the buzz of social networks; which makes it natural for collaboraion to happen more easily in social networks.

    In the future, I see email as a subset of social networking. Something like Twitter Direct messages – while by default,
    information would be shared across the network; you can always limit the receivers for privileged information.

  39. I’m kind of late with my comments. But your recent tweets about this topic triggered me.
    I agree with the comments that email is a tool to support social networks. And I’d say it’s just part of your real social network.
    What I like about your post is that it is realistic. To rephrase one of the commenters: the email client is core to knowledge workers. It’s their primary workplace, if you like it or not. New tools to support knowledge work should connect to this reality. Providing a tool that is not related to email in some way, is tricking. It should provide a big added-value, or users are less prone to go there.
    I do think new (social) tools make us think if email is right for every type of communication. As Luis Suarez says: Email is for confidential stuff. All other communication should be done out in the open (within the firewall or outside of it).

  40. Love that this article (and the comments) are still relevant 2 years later. IMHO, Email continues to dominate as a social network, especially for business (sorry LinkedIn). Great article, Jeremiah!

  41. Pingback: siteranger
  42. Pingback: Ldesign Company

Comments are closed.