How social networks beat email

By Felix Salmon
December 26, 2011
Maija Palmer, with another one of those end-of-email articles, finds this intriguing story:

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Maija Palmer, with another one of those end-of-email articles, finds this intriguing story:

Andy Mulholland, chief technology officer at Capgemini, says email works poorly for people working in unstructured roles, such as engineers solving IT problems. “Someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, so you send out emails to everyone you know. Out of 20 people, 19 have their time wasted and the 20th gives you half an answer,” he explains. Social networking, in this case, can give faster and better answers.

He cites a recent example where an engineer had an unusual problem with some Unix code. He posted the question on Yammer, and within two hours had an answer from someone in the company he didn’t know, in a department of the business he barely knew existed.

On its face, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. If you’re worried about wasting people’s time, why is it better to waste hundreds of employees’ time on Yammer than a couple of dozen over email? I think the answer to that question is the key to understanding the power of social networks.

The Yammer solution here is clearly superior for the person asking the question, in other words — but why is it superior for all the people reading and thinking about and maybe or maybe not answering it? After all, they spend much more time on this question, in aggregate, than any email cc list would.

But it’s voluntary time: Yammer is the kind of thing which fits neatly into whatever interstices one has in one’s day. It doesn’t ping at you and annoy you and distract you at inopportune moments.

Social networks are also supererogatory: they have none of the feeling of being forced to read and participate that comes with almost all corporate emails. Much of the current case against James Murdoch, for instance, is based on the idea that if he was emailed something, he must have known it. No one would dream of making the case that if some fact was revealed on a Yammer board, and Murdoch had access to it on Yammer, then he must have known that fact.

Related to that is what you might call lurkability: you can spend as much (or as little) time as you like on these boards, learning about anything you’re interested in, without being formally copied-in on anything. Something which might be a waste of time to you can be useful and valuable to me — and social networks are a great way of giving people access to the stuff they find valuable, without anybody having to second-guess what it is they want to know.

Finally, if and when you do choose to participate, you get to do so in public. The engineer who answered that question got noticed, in a good way, and no one else took credit for what he said or tried to hide his participation in the process. No space is entirely free of office politics, but social networks, because they’re public, make such politicking rarer and less harmful when it does happen.

It’s also much easier to share information you find on a social network: worries that some piece of information might be confidential tend to be much smaller and much less important. As a result, such networks have much less friction than email does.

And anything which reduces the mounds of emails we all have to deal with every day has got to be a good thing. My work email account, in particular, is a nightmare: it’s 95% unsolicited PR pitches and 4% internal emails going out to enormous distribution lists which I have no interest in at all. Which means I have to go to a lot of effort to find the 1% of emails that I actually want to read. There’s got to be a better way.


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Your experience mirrors the early days of my own experience in moving from email to exclusive use of social media.

After 6 months of using only social media — and no email — I received only 12 real messages from real people with real requirements or 0.4% of my total monthly email, after spam removal by Gmail, for November. See noemail/ for details.

Luis Suarez of IBM has been using social in the place of corporate email at IBM for 4 years. See is blog for some great insight drawn from his experience.

Also for what a lot of folks are discovering see #noemail on Twitter.

Posted by smalljones | Report as abusive

people have been searching “social media” for technical solutions long before it was called “social media”. newsgroups were invented for this very task and have been functioning this way for at least 25 years.

if VC-backed new “social media” are facilitating this task now it is a negative. it means that discussions that were once public and that showed up on google searches now do not. it is a negative for everyone involved.

Posted by q_is_too_short | Report as abusive

oh, and technical discussions on linked in? it’s 90% recruiter spam and 60% self promotion. if you are looking for a job, maybe it’s worthwhile. but it’s far far spammier than my gmail inbox.

Posted by q_is_too_short | Report as abusive

The story gets some of the facts right, but misunderstands them. The main tool for solving technical/programming programs is Google. The number two tool is focused newsgroups. There is virtually no technical problem that a programmer will encounter that someone else hasn’t encountered before, though that person is rarely inside the company.

The reason companies try to decrease the use of email is to encourage the use of richer communication tools, mainly the telephone and (god forbid) walking the twenty yards to go over talk to someone.

Posted by newyork1 | Report as abusive

What you need is Smart Mailboxes. Every time an email arrives matching your set criteria it automatically appears in your Smart Mailbox. I deal with 90% of my email that way and then only have a few emails to sort through myself.

As for social media – which one of the many? Are they confidential? Will they even be here in three years time?

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

Do people actually read their emails when they come in? The whole point of email is that all the junk comes in, and then when you are in the mood or have a slack period, you peruse it, reading a few messages, answering a couple and shoving the rest aside to read later, or maybe even never. Emails are not like telephone calls, at least not like telephone calls before voice mail and answering machines.

Posted by Kaleberg | Report as abusive

Why is this in ANY way a statement about social networks (apart from the fact that social networks are 2011′s hype monster)?

People were solving problems this way in 1985 using Usenet. They’ve been able to do it a whole lot more efficiently since Google. They’re able to do it in a slightly more structured way using sites like Quora and StackOverflow. None of this has anything to do with “social”.

ESPECIALLY in a technical context, who cares about restricting the discussion of a problem to “friends”, however defined? What you care about is obtaining a solution, from any quarter, and once you get that solution you can fairly easily validate it — you don’t need it to come from a “trusted source”.

In other words: the ability to publish a large amount of information on the internet, and the ability of search engines to find what’s useful in that information, make our lives a lot easier. Wow — that’s a new discovery.

I’ve no idea quite what point Andy Mulholland is TRYING to make; but the point he IS making is banal beyond belief.

Posted by handleym | Report as abusive

If he had used Stack Overflow instead of Yammer, he could have had his answer in 20 minutes or less, and it would be on a site that is specifically *not* about social networking. The pool of people looking at his question would have been broader and deeper than his own corporation, so the answer would probably have been better, too. And the question and answer would be available on the web, so future web searches would be able to dispense with the Q&A friction altogether.

Point being, it’s not about social neworks, per se. It’s about technology making information markets more efficient.

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Posted by iamchinni | Report as abusive

The problem with email is that people use it incorrectly, and then blame the technology for their own mistakes. Email was never designed to be some kind of instant messaging tool, it was meant to be something you checked if and when you had time for it. People complain about spam, and while there is a real spam problem, a lot of the “spam” they complain about is often email lists that they have subscribed to. You are free to unsubscribe from any email list you don’t find useful any more. Alternatively, all mainstream email software allows you to forward automatically email from a specific list into a specific folder, where you can check it if and when you have time for it.

The main “advantage” of social networks is that people haven’t screwed them up very badly yet. Give the technology a bit more time, and they’ll get as badly misused as email is.

As for technical information, or specific interests, newsgroups were designed exactly for that purpose shortly after email was invented. From time to time, I’ve seen the concept re-invented. First it was Internet forums, now it comes in the shape of social networks. To be honest, I never figured out why people felt they needed anything beyond newsgroups, I can’t see that Internet forums or social networks provide anything extra that improves dramatically the experience you get participating in a newsgroup.

Posted by Doly | Report as abusive

Felix, you could have written the exact same thing about usenet and CompuServe groups 25 years ago. Or more specifically, Lotus Notes really started the world of collaborative computing in 1990.

Publish once available to all that need to see is nothing new by a long shot and social networks actually are a horrible place for these types of communications because of the politics of deciding who gets to see what.

Asking a generic tech question is easy in this environment . Asking a question that by default points the finger at someone else who should have known the answer is not so easy. Many would defer from posting at all before throwing a fellow worker under the bus, which means the question goes unanswered.

there are solutions, but social networks isnt an easy answer to the problem

Posted by mcuban | Report as abusive

Felix: Good points. I’m falling back on email quite a bit these days, however — as well as on paper! — and am seeing its virtues. I’ve also used various email alternatives in workplace settings and found them to be…something OK, sometimes meh, something useless and distracting and even productivity killing. Thoughts below: 2/27/4060/were-not-ready-end-email-yet/

Posted by mattdebord | Report as abusive

Hmm, VC and equity investor financed bulletin boards! With GUI!


It seems the engines of innovation are operating at lightspeed while the intelligence of these “solutions” remains stuck in neutral.

No wonder so many publics remain in buyback mode.

Posted by wphurley | Report as abusive

Radio should have been destroyed long ago. E-mail will be around for a long time as the original social medium.

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