There has always been that confusion among Nigerian scholars and others across the world whether e-mail is part of the social media. Sometimes you get such questions from friends but you are not really sure of what to say. First, you need to know the definition of social media so as to have an idea of whether e-mail is social media or not. Checkout this quick definition of social media.
Quick definition of social media
Social media are interactional electronic platforms that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking. A social networking site is a social media site that makes it possible for users to connect with people by creating online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos).
Examples of popular social media platforms are blogs (channels for casual dialogue and discussions on a specific topic or opinion, include news stories), Facebook (platform where users create their personal profile, add other users as friends, and exchange messages, including status updates), Twitter (a social networking/micro-blogging platform that allows groups and individuals to stay connected through the exchange of short status messages that won’t exceed 140 characters), YouTube & Vimeo (video hosting and watching websites), Flickr (an image and video hosting website and online community), Instagram (a free photo and video sharing app where users can apply digital filters, frames and special effects to their photos and then share them on a variety of social networking sites), Snapchat (a mobile app that lets users send photos and videos to friends or to their “story.” A Snaptchat story is a photo or video you post to your very own stories section (or feed) of your account, which is visible by you and all your friends. Snaps disappear after viewing or after 24 hours). LinkedIn Groups (a place where groups of professionals with similar areas of interest can share information and participate in a conversations). You hardly find where e-mail is mentioned as an example of social media. You also check whether some of the features of the social media mentioned here are available on email platform. This helps to unravel the puzzle and clarify the platforms that can be referred to as social media.
What is E-mail?
Electronic mail (e-mail) is an Internet facilitated service that allows a user to distribute information to one or more recipients. People who have an e-mail address (accounts) send and receive electronic letters through the e-mail platform. You can see that e-mail emphasizes distribution, not collaboration; and this is the major point of departure between e-mail and other social media platforms.
Is E-mail social media?
Most angles to this issue argue that e-mail is not social media. They argue that social media has to do with mass collaboration not just mass communication.
For instance, an IT expert, Anthony Bradley, while writing on this issue, says “E-mail is definitely social but not considered social media. It is tricky using the term ‘social media’ because as an industry term it only covers a subset of media that can be social. The key to social media really is effective mass collaboration (v. mass communication, team collaboration, etc.). Facebook is social. Twitter is social. Discussion and message boards are social. But more people would say that email is not.”
Bradley makes two important distinctions as to why email isn’t social media: (1) E-mail is a distribution mechanism and social media is a collective mechanism, (2) Mass communication is different from mass collaboration. So here Bradley suggests that Email isn’t social media.
From various views you could see that an email thread has to be taken into a realtime conversation for it to truly become interactional social media platform. E-mail is seen as nothing more than a distribution mechanism.
Here’s another very interesting comment from TrulyMail.com on why email is not social media:
“Email is primarily a one-to-one or one-to-few medium. Social media is designed to remain available for an extended period of time where people can come back and review what others said. The point is that email is designed to go to someone (or a few people) and that communication is not supposed to be made public to the world. That is why we have encryption for email (see: TrulyMail.com). We do not, however, use encryption for social media because there is no point. The whole purpose is to have more and more people constantly come back or stumble upon it to comment on something. Twitter and other blogging services (micro or otherwise) are, again, designed for others to come by and view at any time (including historically).”
You can see here that the emphasis on social media is collaboration not distribution. The “Mass” aspect of the two platforms is being de-emphasized. The real factor here is collaboration which social media sites facilitate.
Bradley argues that some platforms are “social” but not to be classified as “social media”. This is viewed as a controversial and confusing comment but Bradley has defended this by insisting that platforms such as e-mail could distribute information to a large number of people but do not provide collaborative feature. Here is an interesting question Bradley responded to while discussing why e-mail is not social media;
“Why wouldn’t email be considered as supporting mass collaboration? An email can be forward at a mass scale level (consider internal email at Microsoft from Bill Gates which have huge external circulations). At the same time many blogs have small readerships and 30% of YouTube videos get less than 100 views.”
E-mail, as supported by your Microsoft example, is a great channel for mass communication. Mass communication has been a media staple for many decades (e.g., radio, television, newspapers). Social media brings collaboration to the masses which is why mass collaboration is the key value add of social media. Many believe that e-mail is a poor mechanism for mass collaboration primarily due to its distribution nature (v. collective). Imagine trying to achieve Wikipedia via e-mail. This is one of the reasons I make a clear distinction between social media communications and social media collaboration. Exploring social media as a communications channel is important but the real impact of social media is in catalyzing the collective to collaborate. The really interesting thing about YouTube is not the number of viewers of any particular video but the fact that the masses have created an organized and transparent repository of millions upon millions of videos that in aggregate dwarf viewership of any other video channel.
“When we say email doesn’t qualify as social media are we talking about email as a tool? If so, where do we draw the distinction between email and blogs if the former is being used to aggregate blogs via RSS feeds?”
Yes, I am talking about e-mail as a communication/collaboration mechanism. As a characteristic of its power as a communication mechanism, e-mail is a great alerting channel. I recommend e-mail integration with social media as an alerting mechanism. Using e-mail for RSS feed aggregation is using it in this alerting role (same as me getting an e-mail alert when someone comments on my blog). But to effectively collaborate people should traverse the link back to the blog to contribute. If you de-emphasize collaboration and emphasize communication in your blog you water down the differences between the two.
Another social media analysts and expert in commerce marketing, Chris Leong, makes a very interesting and revealing postulation on why email is not exactly social media. According to Leong;
“Emails do fit a number of the definitions (of social media). Users create and share information, ideas, personal messages and other contents through emails. It is used to create a community of endless messages and updates in a workplace. It used to be one of the best ways to talk to somebody who used to live 5000 miles away from you instead of using typical snail mail.
So yes, one might consider emails as ‘social media’. Just like how WhatsApp, Line, Telegram, WeChat etc have eventually developed and added features like ‘stories’ to make it seem closer to Instagram and Facebook. However, if you look at it deeper, some would say it is just a messaging service with most of the capabilities of social media but does not exactly tie a community together. Emails (unless working) are not something people typically look forward to; nor do they constantly want to check it on their phones. It’s ‘social’ capabilities are limited to those who are meant to be recipients of the message and there are limits to what you can do.”
To summarize this discussion, you should note that social media emphasize collaboration around information, that is, how many people can discus or respond to an issue raised on an electronic platform. It is not about the number of people the topic or information was distributed to. As Bradley says, “Social media isn’t about the number of people who can get information but the number of people who can effectively collaborate around information. A book is not collaborative so no matter how many people read it, it won’t be social media.”
Using microblogs as an instance to further explain why email is not social media, Bradley asserts as follows: “Microblogging is a pull approach whereas e-mail is a push approach. This means that the crowd decides what is worth reading rather than the author. An author in e-mail can push his/her message to anyone who may or may not care to receive it. It is a supply approach rather than a demand approach. Also e-mail is a distribution whereas Microblogging is a collective. People go to the microblogs to participate whereas people shoot out e-mail in a distributed and fragmented manner which negatively impacts the ability of the crowd to meaningfully organize, validate, and evolve the content.” This is a very interesting comment which further throws more light on why e-mail does not fit into the category of social media.
So what do you think after reading this? Do you agree now that e-mail is not social media or you insist otherwise? Let us know your view on this.