Social Media Notebook: Is Facebook Making E-mail a Dinosaur?

Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD, FAAP

MDNG Primary Care, August 2010, Volume 12, Issue 8

Facebook is rapidly becoming more popular than e-mail, with millions of users of all ages signing up for accounts. Maybe it’s time you checked it out to see what all the fuss is about.

“Why do I need Facebook?” my mom asked me again. I answered as I always have: “You don’t need it, Mom. It’s just another way of interacting with people. It’s a communications tool that allows you to stay in touch with people. Everyone finds their own way to use it. It’s fun. Try it out.”

“Most people I know use e-mail,” she usually replies. “I’ll just use that.” Until recently, I would have agreed with her and not pushed her to join Facebook, but recent data has made me think that perhaps she should give Facebook a test drive. Perhaps we all should.

Last year marked the first time that Americans began using Facebook more frequently than e-mail, with users spending 15.8% of their time on social networking sites and 11.5% of their time on e-mail. This year, e-mail is truly being left in the dust, according to research from The Nielsen Company (http://hcp.lv/9B2cCl), we spend nearly 23% of our time on social networking sites and only 8% on e-mail. Quite a change in just one year’s time!

The picture changes a bit when you look at cell phone use. We actually spend quite a bit more time using e-mail on our cell phones (41%) than we do on social networking (28%). However, with the availability of newer smartphones and more third-party applications that make it easier to access websites without going through a true Internet portal, it will be interesting to see how these numbers change in 2011.

This gets even more intriguing when we consider who is actually using sites like Facebook, whether on their PC or mobile device. The Nielsen report, “Social Networking’s New Global Footprint”, revealed that social networking is becoming a multigenerational experience, with its popularity increasing among members of the 50-64 generation and the 64 generation. In 2007-2008, the number of 50 to 64-year-ol users was twice that of teenagers. So, we can no longer say that social networking is a venue of the young. This is a communications tool that is touching all of our populations, which means that patients of all ages will come into our offices having been shaped by the health information they receive from their Facebook experiences.

Does this mean that e-mail will go the way of the dinosaurs? I doubt it. As popular as Facebook has become, it still has well-known privacy issues, so it is not the ideal tool for communicating in a health or business setting. Facebook won’t replace e-mail any more than texting has replaced voice calling on cell phones. Just as there are times that we need to speak directly to somebody instead of texting them, we will likely always need the secure, one-on-one, private communication of an e-mail, especially in health care.

Still, if you are not on Facebook, I encourage you to give it a try. Many of your friends and family (and patients) of all ages are probably on Facebook. It is valauble to know firsthand how our patients are getting their information online, and from what venues. Knowing the names of those venues doesn’t replace having personal experiences with them. You don’t have to be an expert, just be familiar enough to know what a “wall” and a news feed are, as well as the meaning of “what’s on your mind?”

Or, join because you just want to be part of the “now” conversation, as my mom decided to. Yes, it’s true: my mom took the Facebook plunge. She still prefers e-mail, but she does find it useful to get on Facebook to drop a quick “hi” or “happy birthday,” especially to friends and relatives in faraway places. As I’ve explained to her many times, there’s no right or wrong way to use it. You’ll find your way, and then you’ll be able to join the conversation your patients are now part of, and in growing numbers!

Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, MD, FAAP, (aka “Dr. Gwenn”) is a pediatrician, health journalist, parenting and social media expert, and is CEO and Editor-In-Chief of Pediatrics Now (www.pediatricsnow.com), an online health and communications company dedicated to providing reliable information for today’s busy families. She also writes the blog Dr. Gwenn Is In (www.drgwennisin.com).