Death of email = death of Facebook

By Razib Khan | June 17, 2010 10:09 am

Reihan Salam points me to a presentation by a Facebook executive who claims that “E-mail…is probably going away….” Well, remember Google Wave? I assume that email-as-we-know-it will evolve. But one thing I pointed out to a friend the other day: remember when you were excited to get “new mail?” (perhaps the reference will be lost on younger readers, but there was a time when it was cool and special to have an email account, and be able to receive messages from people who lived in Ecuador at digital speed) Now it’s more like, “now what!?!?!” Email is a utility through which your boss may contact you. The excitement factor has now shifted to Facebook, where old friends you’ve lost touch with may request to be your friend. But if Facebook becomes as ubiquitous as email, as taken-for-granted, you might start getting wall messages from your boss. And at that point Facebook will become a utility you’ll want to not log into, not because you want to avoid wasting time procrastinating, but because the “real world” has infected it.

Technology has been one reason we humans have by and large broken out of the Malthusian trap. But a key difference between innovation on the physical dimension (e.g., the combustion engine) and technologies which have social utility is that human psychological faculties can shift only on the margins by much smaller degrees. In theory you can have as many Facebook friends as Facebook will allow you to have; it’s a scalable phenomenon. But in reality a small circle of friends become Facebook “friends” who you barely know, because your mind isn’t geared to really keep track of so many social relations.

Of course the people who run tech companies are smart and many know this. But their jobs hinge on you becoming invested in the idea that their firm is going to Change Everything. So they’re not going to emphasize too much the fact that human utilization of technology is substrate constrained, so to speak.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Technology
MORE ABOUT: Email, Facebook, Technology
  • Mike

    The nice thing about sites like Facebook is that you can decide who to be friends with and control who can send you messages. I don’t invite my boss to movies, birthday parties, or football games and wouldn’t let him be a friend on a website that I use for my personal fun.

  • Martin

    People are already friending their work associates and bosses. Check out a site like Failbook, which occasionally shows hilarious but unfortunate incidents where people complain about their job, only to have their boss comment that they “don’t have to come in on Monday.”

    Another example: a teenager talks about getting drunk or losing their virginity, only to have their parent chime in that they are grounded.

    Facebook users need to learn how to maintain Friends Lists and post things to the appropriate people.

  • Martin

    Also, your comment about the number of Facebook friends that you can reasonably have close relationships with is right on. A study recently came out which said that it is meaningless to have more than 150 friends.

    People who have 1000 friends obviously don’t *know* most of them on a personal level. Usually they maintain that many friends for marketing purposes.

  • Razib Khan

    A study recently came out which said that it is meaningless to have more than 150 friends.

    this is a robust finding. many studies from several disciplines seem to show a natural upper ceiling to your social network. or at least a particular structure in terms of weights & numbers.

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  • deadpost

    This may be a totally stupid idea, but I wonder if it is possible for an increase in Dunbar’s number to be selected for(as in by natural selection, not by transhumanist design or anything) in a increasingly social-networked society.

    Yes, I know that it hasn’t changed since hunter-gatherers transitioned to cities, so it can’t act that fast. But then again, there’s the argument that things like the “psychopathic” personalities were selected in an increasingly impersonal business world, or that Asperger’s personalities are fitter in the information age.

    Perhaps, some folks born by chance with the ability to memorize, keep track and rememeber social details of more than 150, are better able to manoeuvre their way through social networks without a faux pas. They reap the benefits of the wider network, for the purposes marketing and connections, but avoid the cost of status-lowering gaffes such as their mother-in-law or boss looking at their drunken pictures, because they remember who knows and can see what.

    As a result, they gain higher status, and are less likely to end up lonely and single. They are more likely to meet other folks like them and through assortative mating …. Dunbar’s number increases.

    Okay, hand-waving, implausible evo-psych sci-fi at best.

  • Razib Khan

    deadpost, i think that’s possible. but the change will be relatively small in terms of what happened with the replacement of biologically powered land transport with physically powered transport (horses to trains). percentages vs. orders of magnitude.

  • John Emerson

    I’ve met a number of interesting new people on Facebook, and soem of them have met one another through me, so it’s all good.

    One problem I’ve had is the mix of actual friends and facebook friends. It’s been good in the sense that some family members I rarely see know me a lot better now, but it’s bad in the sense that if you get into a heated argument on a partly-political Facebook site, you may find that you’ve made an enemy of a blood relative of one of your friends.

  • John Emerson

    I’m still Facebook friends with 5 of my 7 nieces, but problems of the kind mentioned in #2 mean that the other two are strangers.

  • Razib Khan

    zuckerberg’s idea of one identity for an individual seems kind of retarded. i assume that it’s bullshit that he and his minions are putting out there to maximize the perceived potential of facebook.

  • Ruchira

    For all the hoopla about Facebook connecting people, have you all noticed that it doesn’t permit publishing the name of someone who is not on FB anywhere in one’s personal profile? My husband is not on FB. I cannot write his name in the “Married To” column of my information page. That is pretty high handed in my opinion.

  • Sujatha

    Facebook is the Borg. I suppose the main idea is ‘Assimilate or be destroyed’. Which explains why you can’t list your husband’s name, Ruchira. Of course, he has to have a FB account, otherwise, he can’t be listed in any kind of personal relationship with anyone. I wonder if someone else has figured a way out of that feature.

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  • Joel

    I have enough filters set up that I still get excited about email that lands in my inbox. :)

  • Razib Khan

    joel, i never get spam really. and what i get doesn’t bother me. so that’s not the issue.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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