Why We Ignore Inanities in Facebook/Twitter But Not in Email

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Imagine the following scenario. You are in the middle of your working day, and take a quick break to check in on Facebook or Twitter. Someone posts the following, very common, drivel: "Spent ten minutes waiting for coffee machine at work. #notenoughcaffeine." A small minority of people will have some similar comment or reaction. The overwhelming majority will think, "who cares," ignore it, move on.

Now imagine the following. You are in the middle of your working day, and an email, from a friend or colleague (i.e. not unsolicited spam) with the same text. The situation reverses itself. A small minority will easily ignore it and hit "delete", while the overwhelming majority will be annoyed, and many will respond with, "who cares? Don't waste my time!" In the old days, we even had email "flame wars", where wasteful or inane emails would lead to responses back and forth, members of a list "flaming" each other.

Two questions bother me:

  1. What is it about social media that creates greater tolerance for drivel and inanities than email? I am ignoring, of course, political posts, which have low tolerance across all media.
  2. What is it about social media that encourages the posting of such drivel and inanities? Undoubtedly, one reason is the greater tolerance listed above, but there seems to be something inherent about social media that encourages such postings.

We will address the second question in a later follow-on post. This short post reviews why connected humans have greater tolerance in social than in email.

There appear to be two mutually supporting factors at play in the social vs. email behavioural differences.


With email, the sender needs to actively send an email to recipients. Essentially, the person is sending it outside of their personal sphere, which is largely limited to their email inbox. There is an expectation of certain limits on intrusive behaviour when one actively places something outside of their walled garden. Of course, there are limits inside that garden as well. One does not (or should not) prance around naked in their front yard, but society tolerates much more relaxed dress in your own visible front yard than in the office or church.

With social media, the sender posts to within their own personal space. It is similar to writing it on a board and putting it in your front yard. Sure, others can see it, but it is not outside in the public domain. The sender (or poster) feels more comfortable posting, and the recipients (or friends or followers) have greater tolerance, implicitly understanding that it is in the poster's personal yard.


With email, the email shows up in the recipient's mailbox. This has two key effects:

  • It actively seeks me out, i.e. the sender had to choose to add me to the recipient's list, or at least actively select the email list in which I participate.
  • It is intrusive and persistent. It stays until I actively delete it.

By contrast, social media's effect on the recipient is in direct contrast to email.

  • It does not actively seek me out, but rather appears in a feed, to which I have myself subscribed.
  • It slides down the feed in a chronological order until it disappears all by itself.

Combined, email requires the sender to actively send it outside their own space, actively choose to send it into my space, and demand that I take action on it, even if that action is just deleting it. Social media, on the hand, has the sender post to their own space, I actively choose to subscribe, and it requires no action on my part.

The combination of circumstances in email creates an expectation of much tighter standards of behaviour, and thus stronger reactions to violations of those standards; the circumstances in social media create more relaxed standards of behaviour.