5 Reasons why Social Media is Not Like Email

Often, I encounter trouble explaining social media to someone who has never used a social media platform. To someone who doesn’t use social media, the internet is a place to read the news, stream videos and check bank accounts. Their primary method of engaging with the internet comes when they send an email. Every time someone who doesn’t use social media wants to use the internet to communicate, they write an email. Since this is their primary frame of reference, it’s how they think social media must work, too.

When sending a tweet, people who do not use Twitter cannot understand how you determine who to send that tweet to. They believe if you follow hundreds of people, you must read their every tweet and respond to each one. They can’t even fathom the idea that it is not rude if you do not respond to every tweet your friend may send. Because when they think of social media, they automatically equate it to email.

Unfortunately, the concept that social media is like email can make social media seem very overwhelming. Email is tough enough to keep up with; adding additional social media platforms to the pile must seem overwhelming if you were to use the same etiquette that applies to email.

Here are some key elements of email that do not directly correlate to social media:

  1. With an email, you manually select your recipients – When using social media, it is unlikely that you will limit your conversation to a single person. You may “tag” – or mention – someone in your update but only so that you will be sure they see it. However, you’re also allowing a broader group of people to see the update as well. This means whenever you use social media, you are updating a large group of people at one time rather than sending individual messages to each person you know.
  2. You must read every email received – Email is sent to you because you specifically need to know something or take an action. Even emails that are sent “just for a kick” have an inherent ask – the sender will likely want to talk to you about the content of the email they’ve sent. On the other hand, you are by no means expected to read every social media update people make. Keeping up with the sheer volume of it would be impossible. If someone really wants to be sure you’ll see something, they’ll tag you in their update. Otherwise, it’s perfectly acceptable to follow the stories you want, when you want.
  3. It is rude not to respond to someone’s email – It is considered rude when your friends send you an email that says “How are you?” if you do not respond. On social media, not responding is the norm. If you were to respond to someone’s every status, they’d feel as though you were stalking them. As a result, social media is not as overwhelming as it may seem to an outsider. You can pick and choose what you respond to, comment on or share. This results in you being able to drive your engagement and manage your time as you’d like.
  4. Email is relatively private – An email is often private. At the very least, you typically can see the parties who were included on the email. Social media, on the other hand, is an open forum. No matter how comfortable you get with using these platforms, it is best to proceed with a modicum of caution. Never share personal details like your mailing address or the year you were born.
  5. You need a reason to send an email – Typically email is sent because the sender wants you to do something – pay a bill, read an article, or come to a party. You’ll find that social media updates often seem to have very little motive. For example, it’s not uncommon for people to share photos of their food on social media platforms. People share their lives on social media to find connection with others. Until you engage in the social media conversation, it does not appear to have merit. Social media is most useful when you jump in and talk to others. This is the direct opposite of sitting down, alone, to check your email.

When explaining social media, there can be a number of barriers. Trying to explain social media to someone who only knows email can be tough. To do so, it is extremely helpful to start by removing email as the analogy.

What part of social media do you find most difficult to explain?


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