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Social Networks, E-mail and User Behavior

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Posted on / by Alex Berger

Listen to this post:

Audio: Social Networks and Email

Facebook and MySpace have received their fair share of attention.  Thousands of articles have been written looking at the younger generation’s quick adoption of these sites and their prolific success.  Some of these articles have even taken a look at how older generations have begun adopting social networks, while others have looked at why older generations refuse to invest their time and resources into social networks.  Up until recently a large portion of the coverage portrayed social networks as little more than playground gathering places for youths to chitter chatter with each other … Useful from a social sense but irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. With the success and widespread adoption of LinkedIn and record numbers of adults joining social networks that dialogue has begun to change, but it still has largely failed to realize why and how millennials use social networks instead of conventional e-mail and similar resources.

Earlier this year Beth Kanter explored the topic briefly with several significant statistics and insights.  View her post here. To illustrate several of the points I’ll be making later in this post I’ve borrowed the following graph from her post:

Credit: Beth Kanter & Morgan Stanley
Credit: Beth Kanter & Morgan Stanley

This shouldn’t surprise you.  Millennials use Facebook more than older generations, and similarly neglect conventional e-mail which has a significantly stronger usage base among older generations. While this graph breaks the age groups into 15-24 and 44+, I believe individuals currently aged 27-28 is where you will see a very important shift in behavior.   The status quo explanation for this has attributed it to a youth- based fad which I believe is inaccurate.

As a 23-year old heavy Facebook user and early adopter I’ve been able to observe my fellow millennials while comparing those observations to my professional interactions which have predominantly involved individuals in the 26-70 age bracket.

Why Millennials Prefer Social Networks

Non-Millennials embraced the internet during a period where ISP and work associated e-mails were king.  You had one e-mail address, probably associated with your home internet service provider and/or a professional e-mail used for work purposes. Most non-millennials have had the same e-mail address for years and usually only change e-mail addresses when forced to by a move, or employer change. As a result most individuals in this age bracket have had only had one or two e-mail addresses in the last 10-15 years.

Millennials on the other hand grew up wanting and needing privacy, but without the access to ISP/work-based e-mails that their parents had. As a result we turned to free e-mail account providers – companies like Yahoo, MSN and lately Google. En mass we flooded onto these sites and in youthful form registered e-mail addresses that reflected our perception of cool … SurfDude42, Sunbabe555 and thousands of other e-mail addresses were registered.  For example, my first e-mail address was the_ageless_dark_phoenix@yahoo.com – how’s that for a long/odd one? For many of us we registered our first e-mail towards the end of middle school/in the first years of high school. Similarly many of us flooded onto AIM, ICQ and eventually MSN messenger. The combination of these tools meant that we spent most of our time talking to friends on the phone or IM and relied on e-mail for organizing events, communicating with older generations, and exchanging files.

What is particularly significant is that unlike our parents who were still adjusting to e-mail and using it for professional and more measured correspondences, we were talking about school, stuff that interested us, and signing up for every cool web survey and service we could find. This meant that most of us ended up with heavily inundated, under utilized e-mail addresses. However, that was only the beginning.

  • By high school some of us were forced to register a new school e-mail address.
  • For some the spam we’d accumulated from signing up for web surveys and the like caused us to abandon one e-mail in favor of a freshly registered restart.
  • As the offerings evolved many of us also re-located from one provider to another – eg: from MSN to Google.
  • By College we had our college e-mail and were forced to switch over or balance several accounts simultaneously.
  • As we began to search for internships and look for professional opportunities many of us then were forced to register new more professional e-mail addresses.  Things like Alex.Berger@gmail.com to replace the older playful names.
  • By graduation most of us then had to adopt new work e-mail addresses with our employers.  Meanwhile our University e-mails eventually expired.

The end result is that you’ll be hard pressed to find a Millennial who has had fewer than 4 separate e-mail addresses.  Further, because of the fluid nature of our relationships and people constantly updating e-mail addresses most of us have underutilized, out of date, or empty address books. Contact management based on e-mail that non-millennials live off of is virtually non-existent among the millennial population.

Why Social Networks?

Social networks provide an aggregation of the services we were already using.  It has profiles, the ability to instant message, the ability to publicly message and group communicate, and e-mail-like messaging.  All of which is essentially spam free (especially on Facebook and LinkedIn).  Further, it’s name/profile based, not e-mail based so as your school changes, job changes, e-mail changes, etc. you maintain the same profile.  All the while it facilitates large scale social connections and collaboration in a way that group e-mail lists can’t come close to.

Usage Behavior

What you’ll find is that Millennials almost exclusively use e-mail to communication with/for 1) Non-Millennials 2) Professional Exchanges and 3) To transfer files or store information.

If you look at females (as they are more prone to regular social conversation) in the 26-35 age group, I believe (from personal observation) that you will find that a large percentage e-mail back and forth in a conversational manner very similar to the exchanges that regularly take place on social networks.  The difference being they are outside the millennial window and as a result still rely on the more conventional e-mail-based exchange.

As technology continues to evolve, so too will our reliance on virtual mediums to facilitate communication.  I had a wonderful reminder and illustration of this yesterday during a conversation with my roommate – a 1st grade teacher.  She shared a story with me about one of her co-worker’s 8-month old daughter who, despite not being able to speak or walk yet, actively uses a basic video game. When she strikes a key the game plays a brief video. She shows signs of recognition when the laptop is brought out and is always eager to play the game.  That is the type of digital native which will re-shape the way we view technology 18 years from now.

As always, I value your insights, feedback and stories!   Please post them in a comment below.

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.

26 Comments

  • Andrew Meyers
    August 9, 2008

    I really liked this article and I really like how you compared the lives before we got into professional work versus when we were trying to be “cool”. Back in 8th grade or whenever I started getting onto the computer I would sign up with screen names from Dragon Ball Z almost exclusively. Nobody would be able to identify me from my screennames/e-mail addresses. Now It’s completly the opposite though you may not know exactly who I was, you would have a pretty good guess from looking at my e-mail address andy.p.meyers@gmail.com, and while that’s not the only one I use andy@evtv1.com, andrew.meyers@asu.edu they’re still pretty identifiable the first being my work e-mail in which I’m Andy and I work at EVTV1, and the second being my ASU e-mail address both which you could find out information about me pretty readily.

    I’ve noticed that some of the Non-Millennials are also getting dragged into the Social Networking scheme, but I’ve also noticed it’s not necessarily the same reason that we get into the social networks. The biggest example I can think of is Facebook where my mother and several of my aunts and uncles have also joined, but they join for the networking side of it, to pursue others in the same field as they are, etc. While, at least with me, it seems our age group is more interested in the social side, making as many friends as possible. I really enjoyed this entry keep up the good work!

    Reply
  • Andrew Meyers
    August 8, 2008

    I really liked this article and I really like how you compared the lives before we got into professional work versus when we were trying to be “cool”. Back in 8th grade or whenever I started getting onto the computer I would sign up with screen names from Dragon Ball Z almost exclusively. Nobody would be able to identify me from my screennames/e-mail addresses. Now It’s completly the opposite though you may not know exactly who I was, you would have a pretty good guess from looking at my e-mail address andy.p.meyers@gmail.com, and while that’s not the only one I use andy@evtv1.com, andrew.meyers@asu.edu they’re still pretty identifiable the first being my work e-mail in which I’m Andy and I work at EVTV1, and the second being my ASU e-mail address both which you could find out information about me pretty readily.

    I’ve noticed that some of the Non-Millennials are also getting dragged into the Social Networking scheme, but I’ve also noticed it’s not necessarily the same reason that we get into the social networks. The biggest example I can think of is Facebook where my mother and several of my aunts and uncles have also joined, but they join for the networking side of it, to pursue others in the same field as they are, etc. While, at least with me, it seems our age group is more interested in the social side, making as many friends as possible. I really enjoyed this entry keep up the good work!

    Reply
  • Alex Berger
    August 9, 2008

    Thanks for the feedback Andy!

    Reply
  • Alex Berger
    August 9, 2008

    Thanks for the feedback Andy!

    Reply
  • Beth Kanter
    August 11, 2008

    Wow, excellent reflection on generational differences with email. Keep up the great work.

    Reply
  • Beth Kanter
    August 10, 2008

    Wow, excellent reflection on generational differences with email. Keep up the great work.

    Reply
  • Anonymous
    August 11, 2008

    In our New Faculty Forum at Georgia Southern U last week, we heard twice that “e-mail is for old people.” And here’s the explanation. Clear & concise. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Barbara B. Nixon
    August 11, 2008

    In our New Faculty Forum at Georgia Southern U last week, we heard twice that “e-mail is for old people.” And here’s the explanation. Clear & concise. Thanks!

    Reply
  • E-mail is for Old People « Becoming Learner Centered
  • Alex Berger
    August 11, 2008

    Beth & Barbara – Thank you both for your wonderful feedback and support!

    All: Please note that I have added the audio transcript for this post.

    Reply
  • Alex Berger
    August 11, 2008

    Beth & Barbara – Thank you both for your wonderful feedback and support!

    All: Please note that I have added the audio transcript for this post.

    Reply
  • Guest
    August 11, 2008

    So is 27 old? Because I wouldn’t be caught dead on myspace or facebook.

    Reply
  • gregf
    August 11, 2008

    So is 27 old? Because I wouldn’t be caught dead on myspace or facebook.

    Reply
  • Alex Berger
    August 11, 2008

    Greg,

    Thanks for the comment. Not at all, and that’s the catch. There has been the perception and dialog that “e-mail is for old people” which typically is accompanied by the counter claim, that “Social Networks are for young kids” which grossly miss-represents the 27-X age demographic, and equally miss-portrays the 18-27 age group.

    My references to that statement are more referencing the existing dialog which I don’t view as accurate. The data and inspiration for that statement however, is valid and something i’ve tried to clarify in this post.

    At 27, you fall into the transition group. You’re reading blog posts, and thus I assume fairly tech savvy/reliant, so I’d wager that you do a lot of communication with friends over e-mail. Do you do e-mail forwards or have daily or bi-daily back and forth e-mail exchanges with friends in addition to your professional correspondences?

    If you do, you’re engaged in several of the core behaviors which Social Networks streamline. On the flip side, the added exposure and public nature of social networks as well as cultural programming leave you extremely resistant to using the technology.

    Reply
  • Alex Berger
    August 11, 2008

    Greg,

    Thanks for the comment. Not at all, and that’s the catch. There has been the perception and dialog that “e-mail is for old people” which typically is accompanied by the counter claim, that “Social Networks are for young kids” which grossly miss-represents the 27-X age demographic, and equally miss-portrays the 18-27 age group.

    My references to that statement are more referencing the existing dialog which I don’t view as accurate. The data and inspiration for that statement however, is valid and something i’ve tried to clarify in this post.

    At 27, you fall into the transition group. You’re reading blog posts, and thus I assume fairly tech savvy/reliant, so I’d wager that you do a lot of communication with friends over e-mail. Do you do e-mail forwards or have daily or bi-daily back and forth e-mail exchanges with friends in addition to your professional correspondences?

    If you do, you’re engaged in several of the core behaviors which Social Networks streamline. On the flip side, the added exposure and public nature of social networks as well as cultural programming leave you extremely resistant to using the technology.

    Reply
  • Public Relations Matters » Blog Archive » links for 2008-08-11 [delicious.com]
  • Ken Kavanagh
    August 14, 2008

    Regarding your statement “As technology continues to evolve, so too will our reliance on virtual mediums to facilitate communication.”

    As a designer of a new breed of “software toys” (“Clicktoy – The Meadow” specifically), I agree that interactive entertainment, social networks, and online worlds are indeed the kindergarten technologies for tomorrow’s generation.

    Reply
  • Ken Kavanagh
    August 13, 2008

    Regarding your statement “As technology continues to evolve, so too will our reliance on virtual mediums to facilitate communication.”

    As a designer of a new breed of “software toys” (“Clicktoy – The Meadow” specifically), I agree that interactive entertainment, social networks, and online worlds are indeed the kindergarten technologies for tomorrow’s generation.

    Reply
  • Alphonse Ha
    August 14, 2008

    I have been reading so much on social media that I forget where I learned what but I’ve read (It could of been here) that generation x tend to use social networks as a professional networking tool rather than a social tool and us gen-yers use the social networks how they are meant to be used when they were first created.

    Accordingly, I think your post illustrates why that it very well. We grew up using mIRC, ICQ, AIM, MSN as a social tool not simply a communication tool. Thus, it is normal for us to use Facebook socially because it was a normal evolution.

    After reading your post, I asked a few co-workers (older gen-yers (27-28)) about their Internet use and first encounters and the ones who did not socialized through “chat” (mIRC etc) do not use Facebook daily. Most if not all of them use it to watch pictures of their friends rather than communicating/socializing through Facebook.

    Gen-x on the other hand do not socialize at all. I am following a lot of social media slash web 2.0 gurus or experts or evangelists and although they use and understand social media very well, their use seems very impersonal to me.

    Another thing I would like to point out is that for us, the ones who grew up with mIRC ect, for the most part, just got out of school therefore we don’t have a professional network and life like the gen-xers who have been on the work force for 10+ years. That also factors in the equation.

    What is interesting to me is that knowing all this… How will the young gen-yers like you and me and especially the gen-zers (?) will network through social media or the web in feneral.

    Reply
  • Alphonse Ha
    August 14, 2008

    I have been reading so much on social media that I forget where I learned what but I’ve read (It could of been here) that generation x tend to use social networks as a professional networking tool rather than a social tool and us gen-yers use the social networks how they are meant to be used when they were first created.

    Accordingly, I think your post illustrates why that it very well. We grew up using mIRC, ICQ, AIM, MSN as a social tool not simply a communication tool. Thus, it is normal for us to use Facebook socially because it was a normal evolution.

    After reading your post, I asked a few co-workers (older gen-yers (27-28)) about their Internet use and first encounters and the ones who did not socialized through “chat” (mIRC etc) do not use Facebook daily. Most if not all of them use it to watch pictures of their friends rather than communicating/socializing through Facebook.

    Gen-x on the other hand do not socialize at all. I am following a lot of social media slash web 2.0 gurus or experts or evangelists and although they use and understand social media very well, their use seems very impersonal to me.

    Another thing I would like to point out is that for us, the ones who grew up with mIRC ect, for the most part, just got out of school therefore we don’t have a professional network and life like the gen-xers who have been on the work force for 10+ years. That also factors in the equation.

    What is interesting to me is that knowing all this… How will the young gen-yers like you and me and especially the gen-zers (?) will network through social media or the web in feneral.

    Reply
  • Alex Berger
    August 14, 2008

    Alphonse,

    Thanks for your fantastic feedback. Great information about your co-workers behavior.

    I agree with you that a lot of the discourse still takes a very “in the box” approach. I’m currently working on a post about education which I believe will really help shed light on this.

    Your last question is a great one. The last several months i’ve really been focusing on exploring early adopters and the benefits of blogs, twitter, and the like as a social networking tool.

    I have 600 some odd facebook friends. Many of which I made in college. I met these individuals through a multitude of channels. The river, salsa dancing, business clubs, lectures, the bars, take your pick.

    The best part is, that because they were contacts made during College they are all over the place. Many returned home and for some that meant other countries. All come from a melting pot of professions and focuses. So, instead of the usual profession/interest based community I have contacts who are bio engineers, lit majors, political analysts, dance majors, artists, business majors – take your pick.

    I can tap each of these individuals for expert advice in their field, get feedback from hundreds of varied perspectives, and share opportunities I come across literally globally. So, I think that, when acted upon, we enter the professional world with a giant Rolodex. The trick is deciding how to use it and how to make the transition from strictly social, to social/professional.

    Reply
  • Alex Berger
    August 14, 2008

    Alphonse,

    Thanks for your fantastic feedback. Great information about your co-workers behavior.

    I agree with you that a lot of the discourse still takes a very “in the box” approach. I’m currently working on a post about education which I believe will really help shed light on this.

    Your last question is a great one. The last several months i’ve really been focusing on exploring early adopters and the benefits of blogs, twitter, and the like as a social networking tool.

    I have 600 some odd facebook friends. Many of which I made in college. I met these individuals through a multitude of channels. The river, salsa dancing, business clubs, lectures, the bars, take your pick.

    The best part is, that because they were contacts made during College they are all over the place. Many returned home and for some that meant other countries. All come from a melting pot of professions and focuses. So, instead of the usual profession/interest based community I have contacts who are bio engineers, lit majors, political analysts, dance majors, artists, business majors – take your pick.

    I can tap each of these individuals for expert advice in their field, get feedback from hundreds of varied perspectives, and share opportunities I come across literally globally. So, I think that, when acted upon, we enter the professional world with a giant Rolodex. The trick is deciding how to use it and how to make the transition from strictly social, to social/professional.

    Reply
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  • gen-xr
    September 14, 2008

    This is such bs. Gen this or that do not use anything different than the other. But people like my gen X. Had Aol, mirc and such. myspace, facebook is nothing more than the new aol of old. you had a profile, private message (email) chat feature. only difference is these social aspects are no longer tied to the isp since high speed internet opened up the web. Not one gen uses these things different. the gen doesnt say how things will be used, the technology does. Although older gens on the web are probably more bored and seen it all however they spin it.

    Reply
  • gen-xr
    September 14, 2008

    This is such bs. Gen this or that do not use anything different than the other. But people like my gen X. Had Aol, mirc and such. myspace, facebook is nothing more than the new aol of old. you had a profile, private message (email) chat feature. only difference is these social aspects are no longer tied to the isp since high speed internet opened up the web. Not one gen uses these things different. the gen doesnt say how things will be used, the technology does. Although older gens on the web are probably more bored and seen it all however they spin it.

    Reply
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