Tuesday, December 09, 2008

E-mail as the social network

Om Malik writes that:
Yahoo ... is planning to .... launch in beta relatively soon with half a dozen small applications running in a sidebar inside the Yahoo mail client (Evite is one of the services that is said to be building a nano-app for this new Yahoo Mail-as-a-platform). Users' address books would act as a social graph, essentially turning Yahoo Mail into the basis of a whole new social networking experience.

The only way for Yahoo or Google to challenge the social networking incumbents like Facebook [is] to leverage their email infrastructure ... With relationship buckets pre-defined by the address book, which contains everything from web-based addresses to geo-local data (physical address) to mobile numbers, email clients are already rich with the very data set that Facebook [has].
I liked this idea back when Om talked about it last year and still like it now.

The address book is essentially a social network. Not only does it have friend relationships, but also we can determine the importance of the relationships, the weights of the social connections. Oddly, surprisingly little has been done with that information in e-mail clients.

Perhaps it is fear of breaking something that so many people use and depend on, but e-mail clients have largely stood still over the last several years while social networking applications nibbled away at their market and mind share. What experimentation has occurred seems stuck in startups and research (e.g. Xobni or Inner Circle).

Meanwhile, there seems to be a trend where social networks are creeping toward e-mail clients. For example, Facebook has added limited e-mail functionality within their site as well as Twitter-like microblogging. These features seem intended to make communication dwell within Facebook.com rather than inside e-mail and IM clients.

I admit I am a bit outside of the demographic for heavy social network users, but, from what I can tell, the primary use of social networks is for communication, perhaps with the twist of being focused primarily on dating and entertainment. It makes me wonder if social networks really are a different app from communication apps like e-mail clients or just a different facet of the same idea.

If they are nearly the same, I would expect Yahoo will do much better from implementing social networking features in Yahoo Mail than from attempting to create a new social network such as Yahoo 360. Something similar probably could be said for Orkut and GMail.

Please see also my earlier post, "E-mail versus social networks".


Daniel Tunkelang said...

I like the idea of using my email client as the main interface to my online social network. But I certainly don't want to change my email address in order to do so. One of the reasons I like LinkedIn and hate Facebook is that LinkedIn generally allows me to respond to LinkedIn-sent messages using regular email, while Facebook insists on my using their proprietary web client.

In may be a good idea for Yahoo to go after its own email user base. But I think they'll have to have a solution that works well for users who want to continue using their existing email addresses, or they'll relive the AOL's fate for pushing a walled garden.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Greg. Good to see this post. Email hasn’t really changed much in 15 years and it’s especially hard to use for groups. Wikis and listservs are even more archaic for sending and receiving basic information. Kudos to Yahoo! and others for trying to bring email into the 21st Century. By the way, also try SmartMessage Center from CircleUp *shameless plug* ;-)

Anonymous said...

"For example, Facebook has added [...] Twitter-like microblogging"

Facebook had the "status update" feature before Twitter even existed

Anonymous said...

Hi Greg-

You should also check out Gist (www.gist.com). It works with Outlook as well as Gmail and any other web-based information source (LinkedIn, etc.) combining your contacts with news about them.

Gist, Inc.

Jesper said...

As you pointed out there have been a bunch of entrants in this space, playing with general ideas of generating social networks from email traffic.

The general problem though, is that why email is in fact a social graph and a more memetic social graph, the nature of the edges of an email graph is different from the edges from a Facebook type social graph. The former are informative about the actual state of the world, but the latter are permission settings.

It isn't at all clear that these two should be conflated, or that good things will result. The landlord I spent a month with haggling over a security deposit shouldn't ever get privileged access to my social data, but people like you, that I've only ever met in person, would be fine with me.

The sweet spot, as far as I've seen from customers in this space, is in analytics on top of the email social graph, which is a completely different animal (and one that Xobni does fairly well). This isn't a competitor to Facebook but a new and completely different data set that should be mined.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reference to Xobni. We have just gotten started, and appreciate the hundreds of thousands of customers that have discovered the all the social intelligence locked in their inbox (Outlook specifically for us).

Jeff Bonforte
CEO, Xobni

Anonymous said...

email? seriously? it's the dinosaur of killer net apps and I wish it would die.

Like already mentioned comments, email is ridiculous for any sort of group-use concept and people should stop trying to claim it works for that. Wikis *do* work for that sort of thing, if used properly.

Yahoo's idea is good, even if it really is their only option to go in that direction .... but they will only end up altering the general email framework usage scenario/setup to the point that it's *not* email as we know it anymore, brining us back to my original point -- email should / and will, die.

Dave said...

Agreed that it would be beautiful to see email die... from a web app development perspective, it causes as many headaches as IE6 due to the whole blacklist/whitelist/dozens of band aid fixes to an ailing, spam-swamped system.

Having said that I agree the "social data" contained in address books and email histories must surely be quite valuable and useful to users. I think Jesper has a point RE: Facebook being a permissive system - Yahoo! must address this kind of thing for it to be workable and not incredibly annoying. Some way to define different social circles or filters that different people in your address book fall into would help a lot here, and also provide functionality Facebook is still missing (to my knowledge).

Anonymous said...

I vote for email dying too. If you're going to build a social network that people will actually use you have to base it on a platform less fundamentally broken.

Anonymous said...

Not only does it have friend relationships, but also we can determine the importance of the relationships, the weights of the social connections.

How? Via some combination of the frequency with which I exchange emails with somebody? Or the length of the email that I send, when I do connect?

For a lot of the more important relationships in my life, I am both terse and infrequent. On the other hand, for much of my day-to-day mundane work, I tend to send a lot more emails to certain folks, and those emails are often longer, too.

I think it's because when my relationships are meaningful, I tend to engage with those people offline. I call them on the phone. I get together with them in person. For example, have I exchanged email with my wife? Certainly. But I bet if you counted up both the number and length of those emails, it wouldn't even breach the top 100 of people in my inbox.

Tim Tracey said...

'Wonder if Yahoo missed the wave. My Yahoo email is my third choice - and my address book shows it.

Plaxo had a major head-start in this regard. They made the effort to be a social network and are still hanging in. But what superior value do they offer?

- - T

Anonymous said...

I hope this is where Windows Live is heading. I think there's value in the data from address books that can easily be leveraged to build social networks. However, I think it will have to be something more complicated than a simple 1-to-1 between people in your address book and people who would be facebook "friends". I think facebook is also a communication mechanism, but of a different and more personal sort. Email tends to be where I communicate with people because I need to, facebook is where I communicate because I want to. It's less formal, easier to find the right person, and feels more personal (perhaps because all of your personal data is right there).

Anonymous said...

Hi Greg,

Check out our product called Inbox2 (www.inbox2.com). We're trying to upgrade basically the whole concept of e-mail while trying to aggregate all your email/social network contacts, files and messages into one big stream.

I think being a smaller player here in the market does give us a unique position compared to the titans since you won't see them doing deep integration with their competitors' offerings anytime soon.