Friday, September 9, 2011

Email vs Social Network: Similarities

Today I had a lively discussion about the evolution of social network and where it's all heading with our executive team. During the discussion, one question that kept coming up on my mind was the similarities and dissimilarities between how email and Social Network have been evolved and their future (I use capitalized Social Network because I'm talking about Web 2.0 sites that are categorized as social media or social collaboration sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Jive, Connections, Sharepoints, etc.).


Even 2008 seems light years ago;
who uses MySpace anymore?
Time will come when they'll have to federate
or face slow decay.
If you look back on how email started, it had very humble start. It started as electronic messaging system that connected universities. Back then not many people had access to computers. Even until early 1990, very few people outside the academia had email accounts. Having email account meant you were a part of academic research group. Emails, therefore, naturally were exchanged around academic topics and around academic life. Email began its life with academic context.

Then as personal computer price continued to drop in 1990's, corporations and consumers started to adopt increasing number of personal computers. Along with computers, networks were deployed, and people began to use email to communicate while they were on their computers. This increasing adoption of email brought a couple of realizations.

First was the realization that utility of email network increases exponentially for everyone if there is no island. Hence Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) was proposed and adopted widely as email became mainstream digital communication media. One reason why email is so dominant even today is because of this reason.

Second was that email address could be used as an identity while communicating with people. Having @microsoft.com email address meant you were a Microsoft employee, and @berkeley.edu meant you were either student or faculty at UC Berkeley. This quick identity tag allowed people to distinguish which group you belong to and what persona you are using to communicate. That is why people still create and maintain multiple email addresses, most common being one email address for personal communication and another for business. We all learned to quickly identify different persona based on email domain name.

What about Social Network on the other hand? There are many debates who started the first Social Network site, but everyone knows there are multiple of them. Facebook for socializing, LinkedIn for professional networking and Sharepoint, JIve, Connections for internal collaboration make up current Social Network landscape (I intentionally did not include Twitter for the reasons I blogged about earlier).

Just like the early days of email, Social Network sites are mostly disjointed. There are federations available for Facebook and LinkedIn with Twitter, but it does not even come close to what we have with email. Just imagine sitting in front of Facebook and sending a message to someone on LinkedIn. It's impossible to imagine, but it will happen sooner or later because of the same reason why there is no island in email world.

What about identity and persona in Social Network? That's where multiple networks come in. Even when Facebook and LinkedIn federate and exchange messages between them, it will make sense for user to keep both accounts because of context and persona. Just as I would use my gmail account to send personal email and my work email to discuss business topics, there will be room for multiple contexts in Social Network world.

For sure there are similarities between email and Social Network. Yet there are things that are not similar at all. I'll talk about them in my upcoming blog entry.

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