These kids and their Facebook

I turned 25 last week so now I’m allowed to begin sentences with “These kids these days…” As in “These kids and their social networking sites.” CNET reports on how messages sent via Facebook and MySpace are displacing email among teenagers:

The future of e-mail might be found on the pages of MySpace.com and Facebook.

Just ask a group of teen Internet entrepreneurs, who readily admit that traditional e-mail is better suited for keeping up professional relationships or communicating with adults.

“I only use e-mail for my business and to get sponsors,” Martina Butler, the host of the teen podcast Emo Girl Talk, said during a panel discussion here at the Mashup 2007 conference, which is focused on the technology generation. With friends, Bulter said she only sends notes via a social network.

“Sometimes I say I e-mailed you, but I mean I Myspace’d or Facebook’ed you,” she said.

Just this weekend I was having a conversation with a friend about the annoyance of getting messages on social networking sites. We both agreed that we’d rather get email. We see the message faster, we don’t have to go to a separate website to read it, and it’s a lot easier to find in the future. Gmail is easier than Facebook is easier than (ick!) MySpace.

Yet when I needed to get in touch this week with some people I hadn’t been in contact with for a long time, I hypocritically turned my back on my expressed preferences and logged on to Facebook. This happens to be the kind of situation where I think messaging on social networking sites really comes in handy. Sending an email out of the blue would have been a little jarring and required some preamble. Facebook makes it casual. By being a part of each other’s news feed, attaching a photo to the message, and putting the message a click away from basic information like where we live, where we’re working, and what we’ve been up to lately, the site allows us to keep up the illusion of constant contact. The sudden email starts to feel like resuming a conversation you’d let drift just a few hours ago.

Clive Thompson at Wired describes a similar effect from using Twitter, another application that seems totally useless to people who don’t get the appeal:

When I see that my friend Misha is “waiting at Genius Bar to send my MacBook to the shop,” that’s not much information. But when I get such granular updates every day for a month, I know a lot more about her. And when my four closest friends and worldmates send me dozens of updates a week for five months, I begin to develop an almost telepathic awareness of the people most important to me.

It’s like proprioception, your body’s ability to know where your limbs are. That subliminal sense of orientation is crucial for coordination: It keeps you from accidentally bumping into objects, and it makes possible amazing feats of balance and dexterity.

Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination.

Email, for all its benefits, is lousy at creating this kind of social sixth sense. Imagine instead that email and Facebook worked together, automatically including a photo and profile information in place of the usual text signature for emails sent between friends. That would link it into the benefits of social networks and take off some of the professional edge that’s creeping over email among the younger set.

And maybe this would be good for professional messages, too. In my job doing media relations, I’m constantly in email and telephone contact with journalists and people booking shows around the country. The vast majority of the communication is pleasant but utterly forgettable. That’s too bad, because at both ends of the line we’d benefit from sustaining professional relationships. Journalists like to have people they can count on to deliver a source, and I like to have journalists I can count on to be interested in what I send them. In the long run we might both benefit when it’s time to look for new jobs. Attaching a face and some memorable biographic info to our exchanges would facilitate this kind of communication a lot better than the dead end of a text email does.

I don’t want to see email replaced and I’d really hate to see it become a crusty old tool used only by professionals. Finding ways to let it tap into the benefits of social networks seems like it could be the necessary next step in the medium’s evolution.

[Update: Grant McCracken and I must have been drinking the same water last night. H/t Chad.]

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