Has Social Networking Surpassed Email?

As Return Path’s resident Business Analyst, I have become a bit of a geek about data graphics. A great chart can be a transformative experience that reveals new and insightful ideas. A bad experience with a chart can leave you feeling confused, misled, aggravated, betrayed, (and blogging…) Case in point: a recent edition of Silicon Alley Insider’s Chart of the Day email newsletter. It jumped out at me because it was on a topic close to my (and my company’s) heart — the perpetually impending death of email.

Here is the featured chart:


Data graphics are meant to reveal data. What does each one of these charts reveal? Let’s take a look at the Global Minutes Spent per Month graphic on the right.

It appears as though before November 2007 more time was spent on email than on social networks. For a period after that date, the two technologies remained in close unison. After that, more time is spent on social networks than on email.

Most email clients have a single function; email. Gmail may integrate an IM client and many of us use Outlook with one or more plug-ins, but for the most part, when we are using an email client, we are sending and receiving email. Social networks on the other hand, have a colossal array of potential uses including creating and viewing status messages, listening to your favorite bands, uploading and captioning photos, playing scrabble, stalking that ex-boyfriend and even, yes, sending electronic messages to other network members.

Is it surprising that this all takes a bit more time than email? No. Does this have any relevance to the popularity and utility of email? No. After all… the Swiss Army knife has been around since 1897 but last I checked the screw driver was doing just fine, thank you!

The graph on the left is titled “Number of Global Users” and again seems to show that social networks have overtaken poor ailing email. One wonders though — how are they defining a “user?” Is a person a user? Do more people use social networks than use email? Unfortunately this isn’t notated anywhere on the chart… I think we can make an educated guess, however, that a user is a distinct social networking or email account or profile. Here is a quite amusing data-graphic from the blog Royal Pingdom that compares the size of social networks to the population of countries:


If you add up all the users for all the social networks in this graphic, you get 920 million people — close enough to the ~780 million users (around March, 2009 when the Royal Pingdom post was written) in the Number of Global Users chart for me to think that this is the method they used to calculate users. (I would guess the discrepancy is caused by how each group defined a social network…)

In both cases, the comparison is invalid because the author is comparing two unlike things! An Australian is much, much, much less likely to be a Swede than a Facebook user is to also being a LinkedIn user. Likewise, a Hotmail user is less likely to be a Gmail user than a Facebook user is to being a LinkedIn user. I have 3 email accounts — Outlook for work, Gmail for personal, and a vestigial Yahoo! account which I do not use. How many social networks do I belong to? Facebook and Twitter for starters. I doubt I ever cancelled my MySpace account, so I suppose I should count that. LinkedIn, yep. And let’s see … GoodReads, LibraryThing from when I tried to catalog my books — Ning, FriendFeed, Fotolog. Trust me, the list goes on (and on).

I probably have accounts at 10-15 social networking sites and 3 email accounts. So, in the “Number of Global Users” chart, I would have counted not as 1 person who uses email and 1 person who uses social networks, but rather 10-15 “users” of social networks and 3 “users” of email!

Let’s apply that same logic to my wardrobe. I have about 20 button-down shirts and maybe 7 pairs of dress pants. From that data, can we conclude that “The Pants’ Reign Is Over, Shirts Are The New King?” Nah… my guess is that I will continue to wear pants every day (or at least, almost every day) and you will continue to use email every day too.

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