E-mail as Social Network: the Pitfalls

E-mail is one of the oldest functions of the Internet. Originally used by scientists and scholars to collaborate on projects, its popularity grew – and with the advent of the World Wide Web, practically everybody online now has an email address, and many users have several. Now Google and Yahoo want to change e-mail to make it more like a social network.

To some extent, the nature of e-mail itself has changed over the decades. My very first email account was strictly text-based and could not even handle attachments. The amount of e-mail I could save was limited by the size of my hard drive. Fortunately, that wasn’t too big of an issue, since I hardly ever received any spam (and if that doesn’t reveal what an old fogy I am, I don’t know what will).

Nowadays, any e-mail account worth its salt can handle attachments, HTML, video, audio, images, and who knows what else. We use our e-mail along with web sites to pay bills, shop online, communicate with sellers when we win auctions on eBay…the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, so does the spam and phishing; fortunately, there are filters of various sorts that help to a greater or lesser extent.

E-mail is only one form of digital communication these days, however. Many if not most web surfers also use instant messaging and the now-ubiquitous social networks. In fact, IT Week recently reported that, according to a study commissioned by the developers of Fuser, nearly ninety percent of US Internet users spend at least seven hours a week managing their email, social networking accounts and other digital communications.

It’s interesting to break down those figures a little by age. While more than 79 percent of those surveyed had two or more e-mail addresses and belonged to at least one social network, more than 90 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 21 were at least as digitally involved. Here’s a particularly painful figure: more than half of those surveyed – 66 percent – spent 10 or more hours a week managing their online communications. So if it feels like you have less time lately to keep up with everything, well, you’re probably right. Could Google’s and Yahoo’s ideas for combining e-mail with social networking help you manage the chaos?

The New York Times covered the separate plans of the two search engines recently. Not many details were forthcoming from Google. I’ve discussed elsewhere, however, how Google’s OpenSocial is just the first step in a wider strategy dubbed “maka maka.” That wider strategy involves adding social networking functionality to all of Google’s web services. Joe Kraus, who runs the OpenSocial project, thinks it makes more sense than building a whole new platform: “It is much easier to extend an existing habit than to create a brand,” he noted.

Yahoo came up with the term Inbox 2.0 for their plan. While the company wasn’t heavy on details or dates, it did reveal some of its ideas. It’s working on a way to display e-mail messages from people who are more important to the receiver more prominently. Figuring that out could be tricky; Yahoo hopes to automate the process by looking at how frequently the sender and receiver exchange e-mail messages and instant messages.

That’s something even current social networks can’t do, and it’s just a first step. The next step involves adding other information about your friends, such as a link to a profile page and a “news feed” that tells you what your friends have been up to. “The exciting part is that a lot of this information already exists on our network, but it’s dormant,” said Brad Garlinghouse, head of communication and community projects for Yahoo.

Garlinghouse envisions a two-page profile system. One page would be the profile that users show to others, and would include a lot of their own online activity. “The profile page is where you can expose what you want people to know about you,” he said, though he doesn’t think it would be a profile page in the same sense as, say, you can achieve with Yahoo 360 or other sites where users put up a personal profile in answer to a list of questions about their interests.

The second page would be a personal page that only the user sees. On that page would be information from their friends as well as RSS feeds or anything else they want at their fingertips: weather, headlines, movie times, what have you. With the proper widgets, this second page could even let users run saved searches on other sites from the same place: find any auctions for specific types of items on eBay, for example, or get an alert when the latest “Ask a Ninja” or “Chad Vader” video is up on YouTube.

Again, it’s worth emphasizing that Yahoo doesn’t seem to be planning to implement this as a separate platform. “This isn’t a separate product,” Garlinghouse explained. “This is an integration that has to be seamless to the user.”

You may or may not have been around or paying attention when the first search engines came out – or even when Yahoo started more than a decade ago. If you weren’t, you probably don’t remember how horrible they were at returning relevant results. Google’s original algorithm, which treated links to web sites like “votes” for the site in question, was hailed as a major breakthrough. Today, of course, Google’s algorithm takes into account more than 50 different parameters to make sure that the results it returns are truly relevant to searchers’ queries.

So the search engines have learned something about relevance, but judging how important a particular e-mail sender is in someone’s life is another trick. I don’t see how they’ll be able to pull it off unless they include some kind of user-controlled ranking system as a factor. I very rarely get emails from certain people, but when I do I want to see them right away. I belong to several mailing lists; e-mail from them is less important.

Yahoo and Google also face the same factors as any social network in implementing something like this: they aren’t the whole world. People with Yahoo accounts receive e-mail from people who don’t have Yahoo accounts all the time. So the profile feature won’t work very well. Even if they do have Yahoo accounts, the profile won’t give you a full picture of that person’s online activity.

Take me for example. I belong to several social networks, in which I participate to a greater or lesser degree as my time and inclination allows. The computer programmers I know would consider me a real slouch when it comes to e-mail addresses; I have only three. This doesn’t count the various IM clients I have, to say nothing of the instant messaging and e-mail-equivalent tools that are available with the social networking accounts I have. It’s this kind of fragmentation that Yahoo and Google are trying to fight with their seamless social networking initiatives. It’s arguably a losing battle.

But perhaps the biggest challenge Yahoo and Google face with this social networking e-mail initiative is whether it’s even relevant to most web surfers. Certainly those in their teens and twenties hardly use e-mail anymore. They communicate via IM or use the messaging tools available from the social networks to which they belong. It seems like the only time they use e-mail is when they communicate with the older generation. It is somewhat reminiscent of previous generations who talked with their peers on the phone, but still had to send written thank-you notes to their grandparents.

Joshua Porter observed the phenomenon nearly a year and a half ago in his blog, Bokardo.com. “I recently talked with a father of a MySpace user who said that he tried to email his daughter using regular email and she never responded. He asked her why and she said, ‘I use MySpace for email. Send me mail there.’ So he created an account and now he messages her there. Wow.”

That was then. What about now? Hitwise just reported that, for the United Kingdom, social networks beat out web mail web sites for Internet visits. This is the first time that’s happened. Hitwise noticed the same pattern mentioned earlier – younger people prefer to visit social networks to do their socializing, while older people prefer e-mail.

So what does that mean for Yahoo and Google? That depends on what their goals are when it comes to incorporating social networking features into their e-mail and other web services. If they’re hoping to catch my generation and the ones before, they’re going to have to be genuinely useful; there are a lot of options out there, and not a lot of time to spend on digital communication, so they’d better make life easier for those of us feeling overwhelmed with “social networking fatigue.” If they’re hoping to capture the next generation, however, they may already have lost the battle.

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