Why Social Media Won't Replace E-mail Anytime Soon
AOL's greeting of "You've got mail!" may sound quaint in the 21st century, but millions of people still rely upon e-mail even in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Now Internet search giant Google wants to merge e-mail with its own social media option, Google Buzz, and create a future where people go to just one source for all their online communication needs.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin said the plethora of social media choices such as e-mail, Instant Messaging (IM), Facebook, and Twitter can be confusing, and suggested that Google Buzz could simplify the choice of how to share your next personal update or intriguing news story.
"I think it is stressful today to have to make those choices," Brin said in a TechCrunch interview. "And I'd like to move to a situation where people make that choice less."
But not everyone agrees with that vision. Google's idea of having just one medium for all online communication is "misguided," according to Nancy Baym, a communications researcher at the University of Kansas who has written an upcoming book titled "Personal Connections in the Digital Age."
"Email is extremely useful, in part — and this is where Google Buzz messed up — because it is perceived as a private one-to-one medium," Baym told TechNewsDaily.
"As a longer form, it allows you to revise. As an asynchronous form, it allows you time before responding. As a form that allows you to select your recipients, it allows you to target messages very precisely."
A rough start
Perhaps a misunderstanding of how people use their e-mail as opposed to a social networking service may have contributed to Google Buzz's rough start. Many people using Google's e-mail service, Gmail, complained when Buzz launched with an auto-follow option that involuntarily chose Buzz contacts from their e-mail contacts. Buzz also automatically shared people's public information on services such as Google Reader.
That led to some awkward circumstances for Gmail users such as Harriet Jacob, as Mashable pointed out. Buzz automatically shared Jacob's public Google Reader comments and info — which included her current location and workplace — with Gmail contacts that included her "abusive ex-husband" and his friends.
The outcry over auto-follow and other perceived threats to Gmail user privacy led Google to issue an apology of sorts in a weekend blog post. Google also pledged new immediate changes that include eliminating the auto-follow model for adding new Buzz contacts, more transparent displays for enabling or disabling Buzz sharing features, and not automatically sharing info from Google Reader or other services.
Still, Buzz's tie-in with Gmail allowed it to amass over 10 million users in its first two days of existence. Facebook currently has more than 400 million active users worldwide, and Twitter counted 60 million unique users as of December 2009.
Google Buzz and Facebook have shown signs of wanting to become the one-stop shop portals for Internet communication and sharing. But Baym suggested that it's more likely that many such services will coexist for the foreseeable future.
People may feel besieged because social media services fail to provide clear ways for people to filter the information they want to receive, and not necessarily because people have become confused by the sheer variety of services, Baym added.
"I think people are absolutely overwhelmed, and rightly so," she said. "We've never been bombarded with more social information to sort through, and despite their rhetoric and algorithms, social networking sites have been really poor at helping people tailor that information stream to their interests."
A wish list
Baym said she would like to see social media platforms implement the following features:
- The ability to select what information you see when you log on (for instance, if people want Status Updates to be their default Facebook view, they should have that).
- The ability to refine information streams in user-selected ways. For example, on Facebook, people should be able to say "I don't want to see ANY updates from ANY application unless I follow it" or "I want to see Bob's status updates but not his links."
- The ability to target messages at specific sets of people easily, and restrict access to your material on a per-message basis by person easily.
- The ability to export all your data at any time.
- The ability to import your data elsewhere.
- For new features to be opt-in, and never opt-out, so changes don't automatically take effect before users can make a decision.
- Anything that makes the site and your information public should also be on an opt-in basis, not opt-out.
- The ability to delete your account easily, instantly and permanently.
Baym's observations suggest that the most successful social media platforms will not necessarily be the ones that offers the most options for communicating online, but those that give users the most control over how they receive information and how their personal data is shared.
And people will likely continue to want their private e-mail options, Baym said, regardless of whether it exists independently or as part of a broader, future social media platform.
"No one wants to communicate to everyone with every message," she said.
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