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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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What Makes the Different Social Networks Tick?

There are two “full-service” social networks that I predominantly use: Facebook and LinkedIn. I belong to a Ning group as well, but don’t often check in there. I avoid MySpace the way I’d avoid a hipster rave…it’s just not me.

Over time, I’ve either read things about social networks or made my own assumptions about them:

Aside from this horse race aspect, there’s also the issue of what you want to get from a social network. This is an important consideration. Josh Catone at ReadWriteWeb has a post that asks, Should Employers Use Social Network Profiles in the Hiring Process? It’s a really good question. And I think one that is probably best answered this way: assume they will.

With these perspectives as background, I wanted to map several social networks to understand them a little more. Not so much the technical ins-and-outs (APIs, open social, openID, etc.). More in the sense of why people use the different networks.

I picked four: Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Ning. They are all quite distinct in their approach and personality. The chart below is my map of the social networks’ strengths. Across the top, I’ve put six different types of social connections. The boxes below each column represent the relative strength of each network for that social interaction.

Social Networks Chart png

Here’s my breakdown of the four social networks.

Facebook

More than any other social network, Facebook wants to be The Social Utility. Like electricity or water, you just plug into Facebook, and it’s the place you go for all of your social interactions.

Facebook’s Ivy League-inspired ethos is a good one for being a wider destination of all your social interactions. Clean interfaces, heavy alumni basis and a relatively safe feel to it are key to its wide appeal. It works well for keeping up with friends, social acquaintances and friends from the past.

I think there’s a fundamental decision you have to make with Facebook. Do you intend to use it to keep up with people to whom you really have a connection? Or do you see it as essentially a communication venue?

I use it only for people with whom I have a relationship in the offline world. This is important for me. I use the Notes functionality to blog about my kids. Lord knows I don’t want everyone out on the Web to read those. So I keep my Facebook network quite limited. Others, like Robert Scoble and his 5,000 Facebook “friends”, seem less interested in the interaction and more interested in the one-way communication.

What makes Facebook great for friends is what makes it not good for business in my mind. There’s the personal and goofy stuff you do on Facebook. Blog about your kids, talk politics, post party pix, family pix, throw sheep, etc. I don’t think that stuff is what you want your business contacts to see.

Facebook has designs on moving into the business networking space. The recently introduced ability to create your own groups and use those groups for distributing updates helps this cause. But it seems like a lot of work to keep all these connections categorized and used correctly.

Facebook’s best social interaction: core lifestream stuff with people you’ve known for years.

MySpace

I remember the glowing, pre-Facebook stories about MySpace. Founded by musicians, it had hipster cred. Kids loved it. And the profiles can be customized a lot in terms of look and layout. True personalization.

What did all that give us? Tila Tequila.

OK, that was a cheap shot. But MySpace has become an impenetrable thicket of overdone profiles with…uh…interesting pix and teen age language. I surfed around over there, and I’m a stranger in a strange land.

Which begs a question. In the chart above, Facebook and MySpace share strengths in several social interactions. So don’t they compete? I’ll have to say not really. The demographics of the two networks are quite different.

If Facebook is Harvard, MySpace is the crowded hookup bar.

I haven’t heard MySpace tabbed as a competitor in the business networking space. Yeah, it’s a pretty safe bet that’s not gonna happen.

But I do want note the large number of specialized groups on MySpace. That’s a really nice aspect of the social network. Meet like-minded folks to discuss topics of interest.

MySpace’s best social interaction: sharing good times and opinions with friends, fellow travelers and hookups.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn is a dry, utilitarian social network. It feels slow, and you don’t get many interesting updates from your network. It’s full of business types. It includes business news on the home page. It’s kinda boring…

And it’s incredibly valuable.

As you get older and develop of a bunch of professional contacts, LinkedIn’s value becomes more apparent. I love to see when my former colleagues at Pay By Touch land new jobs. You can find people you’d like to meet, and work your connections via the “six degrees of separation” functionality of LinkedIn. I don’t have to worry about maintain emails for all my old contacts – I just fire messages through the platform. Employers use the network to find prospective employees. Job candidates can do research on the current and former employees of a company to which they’re applying.

I don’t look to LinkedIn to stay up-to-date on the lifestream events of my friends. I have no idea what my old friends from the past are up to via LinkedIn. The groups based on shared interests are only beginning on LinkedIn. I question how active they’ll really be. In professional interactions, people probably will have their “professional guard” up at all times.

LinkedIn’s best social interaction: reaching out to your network to prospect for a new job or employee.

Ning

Ning is a platform chock full of individual networks. Lots of them. Ning lets people create their own private networks, with much more control than what the other big networks offer.

This makes Ning an ideal place to set up social networks that revolve around a specific area of interest. On the Ning home page right now, featured networks include:

Ning works best for topics with members who are passionate about them. Hobbies, pastimes, specialized professions, politics. This is because these networks have a limited scope. Whereas Facebook and MySpace offer updates on a variety of activities for members, a Ning network is wholly dependent on its narrow scope of interest. Better have a lot of energy around that topic!

Arguably, a Facebook or MySpace group page can serve the function of Ning reasonably well. And specialized industry/hobby sites with good community boards are competition for Ning.

Ning’s best social interaction: discussion with people we’ve met online who ‘get’ our passion.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.