Social Networks, E-mail and User Behavior

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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 – 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 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.

Safe Surfing: Important Steps To Protect Your Information

Friends and family are often surprised when they find out that I only rarely run an anti-virus program. That despite the lack of anti-virus software, high levels of web use, and regular downloading [open source programs, images, etc.] I vary rarely get hit by viruses. Similarly I have very few issues with spyware infestations. You’ve no doubt heard about spyware and have been told to be careful when opening e-mail attachments, but if you’re like most web users you probably are not overly familiar with phishing links and the danger they pose. These links are the Trojan Horse of the modern Internet created for the specific purpose of harvesting your login and password information.

On a daily basis I see the results of successful phishing on friends FaceBook and MySpace accounts as their accounts are hijacked and turned into viral spam generators. Even among the web savvy Millennial Generation people don’t know what to look out for and fall victim to phishing regularly. Far more advanced than the early Nigerian banking phishing e-mails modern phishing attacks are carried out in a number of much more subtle ways and can compromise even your most secure online banking logins.

Phishy Links

I mentioned FaceBook and MySpace but don’t think phishing ends there. Quite the opposite. Your bank account and auction accounts are prime targets and can lead to identity theft. Arstechnica which is a major web technology news outlet recently reported that, “47 percent of all phishing attacks were being launched at either eBay or PayPal, an eBay-owned company” view the full article here. While I believe that these figures deal more with financially oriented phishing scams and fail to consider the porn/ringtone/other types of phishing which is a regular occurrence on social networking sites – it should give you an idea of the severity of the issue.

You’ve no doubt been told not to click on links you don’t recognize, not to install programs you’re not familiar with, and not to open random e-mails but what happens when a friend sends you an e-mail or posts something on your wall like this message I recently received on my facebook wall from a friends account:


MANNNNN this place just hooked me up w/ F REE tones for a month. Just got a bunch of unreleased tones!!!

Here’s the secret site.******.blogspot.c*m

Unlike a lot of automated/generic phishing scams, the post directly mentions me by name and while a typical spam target, also seems somewhat legitimate. In this instance, the dead give away is the space between the F and the R in free. In order to get around a lot of spam blockers, spammers/phishers will substitute letters/add spaces/reformat the post. Had I clicked on the link then navigated back to my facebook page I’d probably have had my login information stolen and my account used to send out similar messages. Since most of us use the same password/login across multiple sites a dedicated phisher can potentially gain access to your banking, credit card, and e-mail accounts with a little investigative work.

Despite being somewhat clever the above example is a fairly direct fishing scam. More subtle approaches will use linked images that re-direct to respectable looking websites. Romania, China and Russia have all been hot-spots for major phishing groups and the national domain names – .ru, .cx, and .ro should always be a cause for concern.

Always Inspect Links

Because of the way that domain names are structured a website URL can be setup to look authentic while actually taking you to an entirely different site. For example, with my domain name it would be possible for the owner of a phishing site to set up a sub-domain on their domain that looked like It’s important to note that sub-domains are useful for sites like yahoo – who want to allow users to directly link to say the movie section directly: but when exploited create easily mistaken web URLs.

Where it gets really dirty: advanced phishing e-mails will copy standard e-mailings from sites like paypal, citibank, chase etc. retaining the formatting, direct linking all of the images while swapping out a dummy URL for specific targeted links, which often follow the sub-domain convention in order to look legitimate. These links then typically do one of two things. A) They will direct you to a dummy site designed to look just like the banking site where you will enter your username and password which they will retain and store before returning you to the real website’s login page or B) They will create a tiny 1 pixel frame which will instantly re-direct you to the legitimate website. That frame will typically be invisible and contain code that tracks your web activity.

A variation of the sub-domain technique involves long domain names that look 100% correct but which end with .cx, .ru & .ro. Regardless of how legitimate a link looks if it ends in one of these three extensions or another unfamiliar .ext be cautious. I’ve seen links like: To be honest I’m not sure how exactly these work, but they’ll snap up your information in a heartbeat.

Mis-Typed URLs

Even the most computer savvy among us mistypes the occasional URL. When we goof, one of two things typically happens. You will either get dumped to a default – this page does not exist placeholder, or to a domain name that is loaded with search results and advertising. As an easy rule of thumb never surf forward after mistyping a URL. If just doing general surfing, hit the back button until the previous/safe page you navigated from comes up, then re-type the URL. If about to perform sensitive/confidential activities (e.g. banking etc.) I would recommend closing the tab/browser window and opening a new one. It’s a little inconvenient but it will significantly increase your security.

Spyware/Phishing Sites

Walk around a corporate office and you’re bound to see two things. The first is people taking a quick break by playing web based flash games, the second will be a number of computers with desktops/screensavers that cycle through beautiful photos. While there are a number of legitimate/clean sources for flash games/screensavers/desktop apps there are an equal number that are significantly less reputable. Unfortunately, for all of it’s benefits Flash is a programing language – and a powerful one at that. In rare instances malicious coders will create applications to be used as data loggers/spyware/adware distributors. My advice? Stick to sites like Yahoo & Microsoft for your basic flash games. The screen saver/desktop downloads are often offered free but delivered with one of two nasty things – a keylogger which is installed with the program and runs in the background recording your key strokes and yes – your passwords – or a second type of package which installs adware/spyware usually in the form of a toolbar.

Hopefully none of this is new information, unfortunately in my experience most of it isn’t covered or addressed in mainstream conversations/warnings. Have an additional tip or question? Post it in the comments!