Posted by: Rob Hof on November 14, 2007
That’s what Saul Hansell suggests in his blog post about Google and Yahoo leveraging their email systems to create social networks. On the surface, it makes a lot of sense, given the huge numbers of email accounts and the wealth of personal data locked up inside email systems. But I’m still dubious.
For one thing, the mere fact that I get email from particular people, or even that they’re on my contact list, doesn’t necessarily indicate they’re friends, or influential with me, or even known to me at all. I don’t know the vast majority of people in my corporate Outlook contact list, for instance, because it includes thousands of people throughout McGraw-Hill, BusinessWeek’s owner. So I really wonder what kind of social network could be crafted out of my Outlook. Maybe Visible Path, which is melding social networking into work tools, has figured this out, but that’s only on the corporate side.
Also, I don’t have only one email address, and I’m sure the one for work would present a very different me in such social networking staples as profiles and news feeds than my Yahoo mail or Gmail or others. It seems doubtful a single email provider like Yahoo or Google can create profiles broad enough to represent the whole me, or help me present different me’s for different sets of friends and colleagues. More than ever, we need something like OpenID, but I don’t know how soon that’s going to catch on widely, given all the challenges.
Plus, I can certainly imagine our IT folks would find some way to mess with, or prevent me from installing, whatever software add-on I’d need. I tried Xobni, for instance, and while it looks useful as a way of injecting some social smarts into Outlook, it also pretty much froze my machine. I gather they’ve fixed that problem, but I’m wary of adding anything onto an already pokey Outlook.
Yet another problem is that a whole lot of people under 30 or so don’t really use email except to communicate with old fogeys like me who do. Microsoft’s Don Dodge contends that email is a natural social network because people live in their email box, but that’s no longer universal. There are many people with whom I communicate only through Facebook messaging. So the group of people most likely to try out a new scheme for turning email into social networks are precisely the same group who won’t do it because email’s so ’90s. Which makes me wonder if IM systems might produce better social networks, since these are people you really do interact with a lot. Except I don’t use IM much myself, simply because few of my friends do.
I do think a few social networks—big ones like MySpace or Facebook, and small niche ones like the customized networks you can set up on the likes of Ning—will thrive as hangouts or hubs of social activity. And for all those caveats, I wouldn’t put it past Google or Yahoo to provide ways to let me use my email contacts and even message contents to create some useful social services.
But I also tend to agree with Larry Dignan that many social networking utilities will become features of all the online services I use, rather than just places to go. It just seems like this could take some time. With the kind of momentum Facebook has, and social network fatigue already setting in, I’m not sure the other contestants have a lot of time to mess around.