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Imagining an Email Social Network


Email has been proposed as a nearly ready-to-go social network. Just how would that work?

In September 2007, Om Malik asked Is Email The Ultimate Social Environment? And in November, Saul Hansell wrote, Inbox 2.0: Yahoo and Google to Turn E-Mail Into a Social Network. Both looked at the idea that email providers have most of what was needed to build their own social networks. There is potential there, but it’s not a slam dunk.

The Social Network Stack

If an email system is to become social, it needs to address the social network stack. To keep things simple, let’s assume there are three parts to the social network stack:

  1. Self-Expression = who you are, what you like, what you’re doing
  2. Relationships = people connections, of all different types
  3. Interactions = how you engage your network

Within each part, there are components that define the experience of the social network. This diagram describes those:

Self Expression: Email Needs a Profile Page

There isn’t a profile page in email systems. You log in, and you see your email. Adding a profile page really shouldn’t be too hard for Google or Yahoo. Even issues of privacy for the profile page are quite manageable for the two Web giants.

Apps on the profile page? Google’s got iGoogle widgets and OpenSocial. Not a problem.

Yahoo has demonstrated with its durable portal that it can pull together information from different sources. Wouldn’t be too much of an issue for them either. According to the New York Times’ article, Yahoo’s Brad Garlinghouse already has an idea for the profile page:

In this vision, people have two pages: a profile they show to others and a personal page on which they see information from their friends as well as anything else they want, like weather or headlines.

Relationships: They’re in the Emails, But Handle with Care

This is the biggest advantage the email providers have: they know your relationships. They’re sitting on a mountain of information about people’s connections to others. As the New York Times’ Saul Hansell wrote:

Web-based e-mail systems already contain much of what Facebook calls the social graph – the connections between people.

This is the killer advantage Yahoo and Google have over other social networks. They know your connections right off the bat. And that’s not all. They know how often you email those contacts.

Imagine how this could work:

  • Email frequency is used to set your initial relationship level with someone else. Lots of recent back-n-forth means strong bond. Lots of one-way emails to you means it’s a company. Few two-way emails means you have a weak relationship.
  • Your address book categories – personal, work – can become relationship definition metadata.
  • If you don’t have your email address book organized by relationship types, the email provider analyzes the words to categorize the relationship. Romantic, friendship, professional. Yes, this is Big Brother scary, but Gmail already does this to display ads. Still, if not done right, this might backfire big time.

I do wonder how much value this really has though. Email address books are used to kick start your enrollment into social networks like Facebook. It’s not hard to import these.

The assessment of your email connections – strength and type of relationship – is cool, but don’t you know that already? Arguably, such analysis really is a way to save time on making your own decisions about these relationships. But if you’re engaged with your network, you’re probably going to take control of this.

Subscribe or Dual Opt-In: Twitter or Facebook? FriendFeed or LinkedIn? The recent stars on the social apps scene have a subscribe model. Your can read the updates of people on Twitter and FriendFeed, just by declaring that you want to. Pretty wide open. But a key factor here: when you join Twitter or FriendFeed, you do so knowing that anyone can read your updates. People with whom you email never had that expectation. So every user either needs to opt-in to having their updates read by their email contacts, or you must send a friend request to whomever you want in your social network.

Type of Relationship: Friend, common interest, professional? This is another one that requires thought. I’ve argued previously that different social networks are good for different types of relationships. Being a one size-fits-all is not easy. It requires a decent amount of management for the user: do I share my kids’ pictures with my colleagues and the people in my Barack Obama 08 group? Dedicated purpose social networks make managing the different aspects of your life easier. Otherwise, all your co-workers will know your political preferences, party pictures and relationship status. Email providers have all of your email contacts; they need to either pick a focus for their social networks or let users create their own types.

Interactions: Watch Those Activity Streams

Most of the Interaction stack is well within the range of Google and Yahoo. Yahoo’s been in the groups business for a long time. Google relaunched the JotSpot wiki as Google Sites. A wiki can be a good group site.

Apps were already discussed under self-expression. Messages? Of course – this is email.

Activity updates are an interesting concept. The biggest current activity in email apps is…email. But I’m not sure those qualify as updates you want broadcasted:

Should emails be shared?

Emails are pretty private, aren’t they? Not really something people will want to broadcast out to their social network…

Google and Yahoo could integrate activity streams from other parts of their social networks pretty easily.

So What Are Email’s Advantages as a Social Network?

I’m not sure there are intrinsic advantages email enjoys that make it superior as a potential social network. Rather, it has these two user-oriented advantages:

  • People wouldn’t have to go to a lot of trouble to set them up. Just present them with the opportunity when they log in to their, with very few clicks or decisions initially.
  • We tend to check our email daily, hourly. So recurring engagement with your social network is a lot easier than with destination social networks.

That being said, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Bebo, Ning and FriendFeed have a tremendous head start and brand. They also have clearly defined, different experiences.

If they choose to roll out their own social networks, Google and Yahoo will start ahead of the game. But success won’t be because of the email. It’ll require a differentiated social network experience. Just like anyone else entering the space.

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About Hutch Carpenter
Senior Consultant for HYPE Innovation (hypeinnovation.com)

2 Responses to Imagining an Email Social Network

  1. Eden says:

    Email social networking

  2. Checkout Email Social Networking

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