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.