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.