Social Networking Meets Web Mail?

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 11-20-2007

Social Networking Meets Web Mail?

Were either Google or Yahoo to roll its vast network of Web mail users into a social network, allowing users to display personal profiles and connect with others, either could challenge Facebook and MySpace nearly overnight.

Either or both would instantly have a user base more significant than the social networking giants have, and would also, like IBM Lotus Connections, have the advantage of an e-mail platform base.

The idea comes from a Yahoo official who sparked speculation on the topic in the analyst community, revealing to the New York Times that the company was looking into how to improve the value of Yahoo Mail by making it more social.

Brad Garlinghouse, senior vice president of communications and communities for Yahoo, told the Times that Yahoo was working on ranking the value of mail senders and linking to profiles of contacts in an address book.

The idea is to create some awareness in the e-mail platform of the relationships between users, or the social graphs. Ideally, an e-mail recipient would be able to click on a link to view sender profiles.

To read more about Lotus Connections, click here.

Yahoo's Garlinghouse described this as part of an initiative called Inbox 2.0. Similarly, Google Director of Product Management Joe Kraus said there were opportunities to make iGoogle pages more social. Analysts embraced this plan for enterprises.

IDC Analyst Rachel Happe told eWEEK Nov. 19 that turning e-mail platforms into social networking platforms makes a lot of sense because e-mail platforms are where people store information about their connections. Geoff Bock, an analyst for the Gilbane Group, agreed, noting that subjects, folders and threads in e-mail clients represent business networks, which are "all grist for the social networking mill."

Gmail, for example, collects message threads into a single record, which cuts down on the message clutter that's so prevalent in IBM Lotus Notes Mail and Microsoft Outlook, Bock wrote in a blog post Nov. 19.

Lotus Connections, meanwhile, includes a Web-based enterprise directory and a tag cloud that relates to communities within the enterprise. Google and Yahoo could embrace such Web 2.0 technologies, applying similar location and tagging technologies to their Web mail applications.

Next page: A Social Networking River Runs Through Your Web Mail

A Social Networking River

Runs Through Your Web Mail"> Gmail and Yahoo Mail boast hundreds of millions of users, so the proposition of blending Web mail with social networking tools must be a tantalizing one for Google and Yahoo. While the hybrid platforms would help the companies compete with Lotus Connections on the business side, the vendors would also be able to challenge Facebook and MySpace, planting fresh stakes in the social networking online ad grab.

Though an attractive value proposition, the act is not without its challenges; unlike users of social networks, e-mail users aren't used to having their personal information on display, so getting them to allow companies to render their e-mail inboxes, address books or profiles for viewing by other users could be a Herculean task.

Furthermore, such hybrid systems could seriously challenge the ethical walls in businesses financial services firms, where brokers and analysts traditionally aren't permitted to collaborate.

Perhaps no one knows this better than Jeff Schick, vice president of social software for IBM Lotus. People are very sensitive about attempts to mine e-mail for social data, so any social software needs to have a way to restrict or turn that capability off, Schick told eWEEK Nov. 20.

However, turning that capability off can dramatically decrease the amount of social data in a network, especially if there aren't other social software services to pull information from. Lotus Connections includes five different services that contribute social data so it can fit many different use patterns.

Click here to read about Yahoo's $350 million purchase of e-mail and collaboration software maker Zimbra.

Mike Gotta, an analyst for Burton Group, said Google and Yahoo would likely have to offer such a system as an opt-in choice so as not to put off users who don't want to share their e-mail data.

But even those users who opt in want a degree of control. Companies would also have to put mechanisms in place to let users decide whether they want to share only their header information—to, from, cc, subject—or let others access the body of the messages as well.

"You step on the tripwire, which is privacy," Gotta told eWEEK Nov. 19. "You have to be very careful. It's like that line from Spider-Man: 'With great power comes great responsibility.'"

Schick said customers want to access social data from many different applications, noting that IBM allows users to access Lotus Connection data from an e-mail client, instant message client, word processor, portal or RSS reader, among other sources.

Google and Yahoo would have to conduct considerable tests with such e-mail networks, striking a balance between openness and pleasing people on the privacy front.

Bock said messaging inside the enterprise is "frozen in time," thanks to the two most widely deployed messaging applications, Microsoft Outlook/Exchange and IBM Lotus Notes. He concluded that the industry has to do a lot more with features relating to privacy, security, organizational boundaries and context.

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