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The medium is no longer the message Add to ...

Old, saddled with spam and incapable of immediately informing the world every time a friend so much as consumes a cheeseburger, the once-mighty e-mail has finally lost the popularity contest with social networking.

Blogging and social-network sites such as Facebook and Twitter are now the fourth-most popular online activities, eclipsing e-mail and growing twice as fast as any other category in the top three, according to a research report released yesterday by Nielsen Online.

Bucking the image of social -networking sites as hubs of college kids and twentysomethings, the report also states that the biggest increase to "member community" sites - an extra 11.3 million people - came from the 35-to-49-year-old demographic.

In all, Nielsen found that one in every 11 minutes online is spent on a social-network or blogging site.

"Social networking has become a fundamental part of the global online experience," said John Burbank, CEO of Nielsen Online. "While two-thirds of the global online population already accesses member community sites, their vigorous adoption and the migration of time show no signs of slowing."

Search continues to be the leading category online, according to Nielsen, with a global reach of almost 86 per cent, followed by general-interest portals and software manufacturers. But between December, 2007, and December, 2008 - the period of the research study - the top three categories grew in reach between 1.4 and 1.9 per cent. During the same period, social-network and blogging sites' reach jumped 5.4 per cent, overtaking e-mail.

"Increasingly, e-mail is yesterday's messaging platform," said Carmi Levy, technology analyst at AR Communications Inc., adding that the medium has become flooded with spam, forcing users to spend lots of time clearing out junk messages and making sure that spam filters haven't mistakenly directed legitimate messages to the garbage bin. "[With social networks] you don't just connect in static manner, you connect in a dynamic manner - you're taking part in a community."

That community is changing dramatically. When it was first founded about five years ago, Facebook was restricted to college students. Today, it boasts about 175 million users, with few restrictions on age.

Mr. Levy said the surge in older users of social-network sites shows the websites can be vital for business as well as personal use.

"This has serious implications for companies - they need to get with the program quickly and learn how to leverage [social-network sites] rather than shut down or ban them," Mr. Levy said. "That attitude ... has to go away."

But even as the use of these tools surges, they still have limitations. The proliferation of social-network sites may give rise to "account fatigue," as users try to manage and synchronize their online profiles. While there are tools that allow users to integrate some features of social-network sites, they are usually the domain of more advanced users.

That's something Mr. Levy sees changing as online communities become the medium of choice for more users.

"In five years, it'll be just as easy for me to use all these tools on my computer as it is for me to use the phone to call my mother-in-law," he said.

***

Site-seeing trips

Facebook

Founded: 2004.

Vitals: What began as a nifty address-book application for Harvard students has ballooned to one of the best-known names online. Users can post photos, videos and all manner of content, as well as respond to all their friends' content.

Strength: Numbers. With about 175 million users, the site is a behemoth.

Orkut

Founded: 2004.

Vitals: Orkut was founded by a Google engineer and initially was accessible by invitation only. However, it soon became popular with Brazilian users, who quickly began inviting their friends. Orkut is now the biggest social-network site in Brazil.

Strength: Geography. The site may not be nearly as big as its competitors, but in certain markets, it's huge.

MySpace

Founded: 2003.

Vitals: The site that launched a gazillion bands - some of them good. The site is based on the "friend" model that lets users share content, but has a heavy emphasis on music.

Strength: Money. While many social-network sites have struggled to make money, the site has done better than many others with its advertising-based revenue model.

Twitter

Founded: 2006.

Vitals: The rapid-fire blogging tool of choice for a growing number of users. The site allows users to post frequent updates about whatever they're doing - in 140 characters or less.

Strength: Momentum. Twitter doesn't have nearly as many users as some of the other major social-network sites, but it is growing fast.

***

Global Faces and Networked Places Social networking's new global footprint.

Wall/Info/Photos/Notes

A research report released yesterday by Nielsen Online points to a gigantic boom in the popularity of 'member community' sites, especially among 35- to 49-year-olds.

Facebook's growth in global audience

Age Male Female
2-17 3.7 3.6
18-34 10.9 11.9
35-49 12.4 11.7
50-64 6.0 7.6
65+ 1.9 1.3

The total time spent on Facebook has increased

Change in total minutes between Dec. '07 and Dec. '08

All Internet: 18%

Member communities: 63%

Facebook: 566%

Member community growth is twice that of the most popular sectors

Global Global % point
active active increase
reach, reach, in active
Dec. '08 Dec. '07 reach
1 Search 85.9% 84.0% 1.9%
2 General interest portals & communities 85.2% 83.4% 1.9%
3 Software manufacturers 73.4% 72.0% 1.4%
4 Member communities 66.8% 61.4% 5.4%
5 E-mail 65.1% 62.5% 2.7%

Music is a major difference in discussions on Facebook and MySpace

% of online social media posts mentioning the network

Facebook MySpace
Friends 22 27
Pro{filig}le 17 17
Photos 14 12
Music 7 20
Problems 8 10
Video 6 9
Application 5 2

NINIAN CARTER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL // SOURCE: NIELSEN

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