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Why Isn’t E-mail (and other channels) Considered Social Media?

by Anthony J. Bradley  |  May 17, 2010  |  9 Comments

I recently had a good dialog around why e-mail isn’t social media and what sets social media apart from other media. Here is the dialog.

“Why isn’t e-mail social media?”

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.). I talk about the principles of social media that sets it apart from other media in this blog post.


“It appears to me that a definition of social media should focus on interaction patterns and data artifacts rather than audience scale. Email seems to me to be one of the most important digital socialization patterns which yields significant social data artifacts and therefore, seems part of the social media spectrum.

You are absolutely correct that in the “mass collaboration” people should focus less on the “mass” and more on the “collaboration” (or interaction patterns). However, a critical differentiation of social media is the potential for the masses to collaborate as never before and the mass aspect is what leads to the unprecedented and distinct value of social media. Also, peoples differing definitions of collaboration can drive disparities in how they view social media.

The definition of social media remains polemical. I’ve tried to isolate and elucidate what sets social media apart and leads to its unique value proposition. I will soon publish research on the primary collective behaviors (interaction patterns) resulting from social media (including collective intelligence, expertise location, relationship leverage, mass coordination, and interest cultivation).

Although e-mail isn’t considered part of the social media spectrum (for the reasons stated below) it should not be shortchanged as a very important communication channel and collaboration mechanism (with limits on its ability to serve mass collaboration). E-mail has been around for at least 25 years and is used extensively yet it didn’t result in the Wikipedias, YouTubes, FastLanes, Twitters, and Facebooks of the world. So there must be a difference. I believe that difference primarily centers around e-mail as a distribution mechanism v. social media as a collective mechanism. 

“At what point does something become mass collaboration as opposed to just collaboration? (does Your definition of the collective has a size or volume dimension to it ?)”

No, we have no clear cut size threshold for mass collaboration. I loosely state that mass collaboration involves more people than you can fit in a room to effectively collaborate. However, as part of the PLANT SEEDS framework (most important design criteria for social media solutions) the A is for authorship and I highlight the importance of knowing what “mass” means for any particular target community. Examine the target audience and ask key questions around how many originators, commenters, and readers you will need for a successful and self sustaining social media collective.

“Is Twitter social media? If so, how does one reconcile that with the fact that the average Twitter user has 126 followers while 35% of Twitter users have less than 10 followers.”

Twitter (or more generically, microblogging) is considered social media because of its potential for mass collaboration. The key is in its potential. One of the aspects of social media that can be confusing is that it can “scale down” rather effectively so often the number of smaller implementations outnumber the mass collaboration examples. But usually even the smaller implementations are striving for mass collaboration.

“If Twitter is social media is Yammer social media? How does Yammer domain-specific boundary impact it’s ability to support mass collaboration. If Yammer is social media than how would a micro-blog posted via this tool be different from an email sent to one or more internal distribution lists?”

Yes, Yammer (also a microblogging tool), like Twitter is considered social media for the same reasons. Since Twitter is a social web tool it has a larger potential mass audience (the world) but Yammer also can facilitate mass collaboration within and across enterprises (mass as loosely defined above). 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.

“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.  


Anthony J. Bradley
10 years at Gartner
26 years in IT

Anthony J. Bradley is a group vice president in Gartner Research responsible for the research content that Gartner publishes through its three internet businesses (, and These responsibilities include creating and leading the research organization and infrastructure needed for the strategy formulation, planning, research, creation, editing, production and distribution of the content. He has four global teams of highly talented people who are advancing towards the world's greatest destination for content on how small businesses succeed through information technology.

Thoughts on Why Isn’t E-mail (and other channels) Considered Social Media?

  1. Adam says:

    Bravo for tackling one of the trickiest debates out there, in my opinion. Interesting debate.

  2. I believe you are trying to confuse two subjects which should not be confused.

    You claim that email IS social because of the number of people who CAN be included in a single message. Since that number can be greater than the number of people who view a social media site then it must be social. However, social media is not about the number of people connecting to a single topic. Otherwise, you would have to call some books ‘social media’ when in fact they are books.

    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:

    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).

    This, I think you will agree is quite different from email.

  3. Anthony Bradley says:


    I think you missed the key point of mass collaboration. 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.

    E-mail is social because more than one person can interact (unlike a book where no one interacts) but that doesn’t make it social media. Social media does not have to be available to the world. Many social sites such as Intellipedia certainly have significant security measures to keep the world out. The social web and social media are not one and the same.

    You do bring up a good point on persistence. E-mail is generally more ephemeral whereas social media tends toward longevity. It doesn’t have to be this way but this is often the case. It makes sense that you would engage the collective for those efforts that would have longer lasting effects.

    I didn’t pick up the two subjects that I was confusing from your post.

  4. Anthony Waisanen says:

    Personally, the most effective discriminator that eliminates e-mail from being considered social media is discovery (not one of the the six core principles in the 7 Jan 2010 blog). While collaboration use social media, I can discover the opportunity to participate, or at least gain benefit. If the collaboration is via e-mail, I benefit and participate only if/when included. I cannot volunteer.
    Your invitation to comment on this blog exemplifies why e-mail is not considered a social media. If you had begun your discussion in an e-mail thread, I’d never have benefited from your insights until and unless I sent a copy. But you appreciate the value of being social, and make it possible for others to discover your thoughts. Thanks.

  5. Anthony Bradley says:

    Anthony, Now you are talking mass collaboration! You are highlighting a major benefit of the social web (in particular) over e-mail where I wouldn’t have been able to send an e-mail to you since I don’t know your e-mail address or your desire to know. You are correct that discovery is not one of the core principles but the intent is embedded in both the “collective” and “transparency” principles. Also In the PLANT SEEDS framework the D is for discoverability.
    Thanks for your comments.

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