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Will Email Really Be the Next Social Network?

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.

Reader Comments

Lynda Radosevich

November 14, 2007 8:53 PM


Your point about not having just one email address is a good one. There are lots of ways to track the "social graph" and work email is just one. For the record, Visible Path just added support for Google and Yahoo email addresses, and it's in the process of adding "relationship weighting" for webmail as well. The goal is to help people depict the nodes and links of their social graph as accurately as possible and use developing standards like OpenSocial to make that graph available in the context of work tools.

Lynda Radosevich
Visible Path

Matt Brezina

November 14, 2007 11:22 PM

Hey Rob,

Thanks for the shout out. We're happy that Xobni is part of this discussion.

You are right; Outlook is a hard environment to develop in. However, we feel there is so much pain for Outlook users, it is worth the fight. You were probably on a very early version of Xobni. Remember, it is still a beta. We've made big strides in improving performance. We're looking forward to sharing Xobni with a larger audience soon. Your readers can sign up on the beta at

Co-founder, Xobni

Rob Hof

November 14, 2007 11:52 PM

Lynda, thanks, glad someone's acknowledging many of us have multiple email addresses. At least in my case, I use them for rather different purposes, so the ability to draw social data from them in a controlled but fairly simple way will be key.

Rob Hof

November 14, 2007 11:57 PM

Matt, thanks, yes, I got in very early, realizing full well my rather aging machine and rather slow network might not be able to take it. But I did see that subsequent beta versions of Xobni were improved in their performance, so I'm looking forward to trying it again before long.

Brandon W

November 15, 2007 10:10 AM

Email may well be the "next" social network, but I believe - more than just "social network fatigue" - people are reaching a state of digital fatigue. I believe people are tiring of digital intrusion into their lives and their privacy. In fact, I'm betting my company on that premise. Social networks will ultimately need to grant full control of personal information and control over the level of intrusion. They will need to integrate with the real world and leave the Internet as nothing more than the pipeline. To create an analogy: people don't want pipelines and the oil pumping through them. Up until now they've been fascinated enough by the pretty black liquid rolling through the pipeline for some people to make money creating "pretty-black-liquid viewing stations." However, people eventually need that pretty black liquid to be refined into gasoline that powers their cars that get them to work and to vacations. My company's goal is to be a refinery that turns that black liquid into gasoline to power people's lives. This is where I see it going.
(Yes, I know I'm speaking with a great deal of vagueness... but I'm not telling anyone anything until our product is ready!).

Valdis Krebs

December 4, 2007 7:53 PM

Email often makes a revealing social graph. Can you spot the bottlenecks and silo-communication in this project team?

The links are derived from emails between project members, and the nodes colored by department.

Richard Elgin

December 5, 2007 10:23 PM

Surely, the social networks which are most reflective of reality are not email social networks nor the likes of Facebook but phone call social networks. People usually only have one phone and it is fair to say that the people you call are also very likely to be people you know in a social sense.

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