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Is Email The Ultimate Social Environment?

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A $350 million buyout of Zimbra by Yahoo (YHOO), Thunderbird being spun out as an independent entity by Mozilla, and the impressive launch of San Francisco-based Xobni: Email, the most socialist of all web apps, is back on the front burner. As old as the contemporary Internet itself, it remains a constant source of pain and pleasure for all of us.

Every morning starts with a groan at the sight of dozens of unanswered emails. And yet somewhere in there is a note from mom, sister or another loved one that brings a smile to our faces. There is no denying the fact that as an application it has most, if not all, of our attention. [digg=]
Given its critical role in our digital lives, I wonder if email could be the underpinning of a social environment — much less a social network and more a “relationship and interaction manager that aggregates various social web services” — that doesn’t require rewiring our brains and changing our behavior.

The new generation of Internet users tends to rely more on social networks for communication, but for the rest of us, email is still the hub of our daily lives. (According to one study, there are about 1.2 billion email users and 1.8 billion active email accounts worldwide.)

The demographic dissonance aside, email for a substantial portion of the population can be a good starting point for a networked experience. It has all the elements needed for a social ecosystem, namely the address book. And if you’re like most people, your address book is organized by friends, family, work, and acquaintances.

In other words, the relationship buckets (and the level of intimacy) are already predefined and have relevance. From there, all communication-related information — mobile numbers, geo-location data, instant messaging identities and of course, email addresses — are just a click away. So what’s missing? Discovery and presence, and synchronicity. The good news is that a lot of these issues are being worked on by two San Francisco-based startups, Xoopit and Xobni, the latter having just launched.

First lets look at Xobni (which would have been my pick for the coolest company at TechCrunch 40) and what they have built. They have an adjunct application for Microsoft Outlook, which scans through the entire email database and quickly establishes relationships among the people you email, and ranks them according to frequencies and relevance.

The best feature of this application is that it can tell you when a specific person is most likely to reply to you and how quickly. It is not discovery and presence in the purist sense, but it’s close enough. Future versions of Xobni’s software will bring together various web services — everything from Flickr photos to Twitter. I like the idea of a quick query that matches a name with a photo from Flickr or Photobucket. Similarly, it would be great to find a way to integrate Twitter messages into the same client and not deal with a separate application. (I wrote about this Universal Communication Client for Business 2.0 back in July.) (If you want to try Xobni, use invite code GigaOM — only the first 100 people are going to get the beta downloads.)

While Xobni is focusing on Microsoft Outlook, startup Xoopit is focusing on the web mail universe. By combining some of its own proprietary technologies, among them a unique file system and search and messaging protocols including RSS, Xoopit has come up with such a unique user experience that it made me think: This is what Gmail should have been.

The company is co-founded by Bijan Marashi and Jonathan Katzman, formerly of Inktomi and TellMe Networks, respectively. Xoopit is very early in its development cycle but is still very impressive. (You can sign up for their beta here.)

The entire system is built to bring all types of web services right into the inbox. You go to the Xoopit web site, sign up, and input either your POP3 or IMAP mail server information. The messages immediately start getting pulled into your Xoopit account. If you have an IMAP server, then the messages reconcile with your original inbox. From here on Xoopit lets you view your inbox (and your attachments) in many different ways.

Take photos, for example. Most of us end up emailing photos (or links to photos) to each other. Links of photos are used to access them, while attachments are used to get a “preview.” The Xoopit GUI makes it easy to see photos on a grid, much like you would on, say, an iPhoto. On social networks photos are shared via some sort of a photo (or slideshow) widget. In this case, the email environment becomes the place where you can experience photos and videos. The next obvious step for Xoopit is to bring in Twitter and other such services into their playground.

In many ways, Yahoo might have taken the wrong approach to its new social networking experiment, Mash. Instead of starting as a network, it should have started from within Yahoo’s email service, which has some 250 million subscribers. Regardless of what Yahoo does, the fact of the matter is that “email” is finally getting some sorely needed attention, and let’s just hope it leads to something better, something that doesn’t make us all groan every time we open our inbox.

68 Responses to “Is Email The Ultimate Social Environment?”

  1. Om — would it be possible to update your original post? So much has happened in the last 2 years on this topic, and MSFT is set to release Outlook 2010 shortly. I am curious to see whether you think where email and social networks are headed together — or apart.

  2. First things first. I hope that you are getting better. I pray to My Lord Jesus to keep you healthy and much stronger so that you can keep feeding us with fantastic writings like this one.

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  3. Brian Moura

    Unfortunately the GigaOm code for Xobni no longer works. So it remains a mystery.

    But I will say that the Clear Context IMS 4 program is pretty interesting. Especially with the new “Dashboard” feature they’ve added in the new version 4 just released.

    I’ll check out Xoopit when they add Outlook support. In the meantime, SendShield and Boxbe sound worth a look. I’ll check those out next !

  4. In a world beset with communications overload, a cockpit approach is daunting at best. Do I really want a flashing panel with lights going off everywhere – maybe if I am a forex trader – but “normal” users would probably prefer a different approach, maybe one oriented towards managing relationships would be a good start.

    Email is certainly a great place to mine data about relationships, but surely the social networking phenomenon is not just about that either. Ever since Email started, it fundamentally changed the equation of how I can communicate freely. Without having to jockey for physical attention with the more socially adept, every reticent individual at their desktop now had better control over their ability to communicate – without being weighed down by “lack of strong Identity” issues.

    The advent of social networking is leveling the playing field even more. Individuals are now able to electronically increase the strength of their Identity thanks to all the social media tools at their disposal. Discovery, Presence, and Synchronicity are definitely technology gaps to integrate within Email – but that does not address the root of why individuals use these tools.

    The defining communications innovation will come when an application manages to strengthen an individual’s Identity across all facets of life – in one place – allowing them to freely communicate in a manner most suited to the context – either in private, confidentially, or publicly.

  5. One comment, in recent conversations with friends I have had discussions on our decreasing use of both email and IM as our engagment with Facebook increases.

    How many “social networks” can one person really cope with? Digg is a social network now, Yahoo is a social network now, the NYT is a social network now… the term is losing value to me.

    Lets get some real innovation please.

    Maybe email will morph into an ever-more coporate tool? I can talk to my friends on Facebook. I can essentally email them through Facebook as well… But when my boss tried to add me, well, that was just ackward…

  6. Really enjoyed reading this post by Om. I feel that social networking today (MySpace, Facebook, Orkut) is too public and most of the activities among inner circles of friends and family occur privately over email anyway. We at will seek to improve the experience of such networking over email.

  7. Great article. As Om writes, what’s missing is “Discovery and presence, and synchronicity”.

    These missing elements are our main focus at Orgoo and the very problem we are attempting to resolve.

    Sorry to lift something Xoopit wrote earlier, but we would also love to hear from people about their adventures in the world of online communication. What “pains” do you experience and what would you like to see done about it?

    [email protected]

    If you are passionate about this topic and have some particularly great ideas, join us.

    [email protected]

    Michael Kantor
    CEO – Orgoo, Inc.

  8. Great post Om, you’re right on here. There’s still a LONG way to go for email. I would take your points further, however: we have a LONG way to go for communication. Furthermore, it’s a shame that Yahoo! hasn’t really embraced that challenge. But, it’s not entirely surprising, either, given who they think they are and how they’re scrambling.

    The other thing I would add to your points is this: email marketing continues to be referred to as one of the highest ROI channels. It tends to be as effective, if not more, than paid search. But it remains a niche business at the moment. This market’s dying for some viable advertising models that really address the opportunity, don’t you think?

  9. Oh la la…problems are much deeper than social networking, as Om points out in his B2.0 article.

    Wanna vent about your email problems? Have a vision for how you think it should be or how you think the everyday person could benefit from a make over?

    Send email to [email protected]. We would love to hear your point-of-view and are even willing to suck up some psycho-therapy along the way. ;)

    thanks! we are looking forward to sharing xoopit with you all. coming soon!!!

    bijan, co-founder @ xoopit

  10. And a slight little rant I forgot in my previous comment: They seem to be very desperate with product names, calling something ‘Xoopit’ or ‘Xobni’. Even if they called it ‘Mr Email 2000’, it would be easier to remember and have more character :)

  11. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, too. Email programs have not changed much over the last years, they are definitely a few generations behind. What I want to see is:

    • Automatically recognize people I email often. They are obviously important to me.
    • Simpler email conversation display
    • Simpler flagging
    • Better search/filtering

    Instead of the same old list, present and organize emails in a way that is relevant to me and pulls out what might be important.

    Everybody has email and knows how to work it, it’s the most widespread communication tool. Let’s take advantage of that. I hope those approaches mentioned above will do that.

  12. Om,
    I mentioned this on my blog post in August 2007 that Google (and all other hosted email providers) could auto-generate social networks for us.
    Here is an excerpt:
    In fact, Google could do this, and it would be much easier than you think. Here is what I would do if I were running Google social networks group (no, they haven’t asked me):

    * Google has the email accounts of several million users.
    * Google could analyze my email messages to all users - this is where having stored all my emails helps - to determine my top 100 contacts. Repeat this for every user and you have created a social networking graph for all Google users and many non-Google users too.
    * Google could then instantiate GoogleBook (I own the copyright!) accounts for every Google user ready to be activated. All a user would have to do is select and unselect the suggested links and the account would be all ready to go. For non-Google users, a 'claim this' GoogleBook account would be created which they can claim by requesting an email be sent to their email address.
    * Google Groups - like functionality would be available for each user i.e., I can send messages to all my contacts, share calendar, files etc.
    * And since you are NOT required to ever create a gmail (Google) account with a new id, the users wouldn't be forced to create yet another [email protected]/cnet/yahoo/etc.
  13. “the most socialist of all web apps”?? Unless you’re simply misusing the word, and actually mean “the most SOCIAL of all…”
    I must protest! There is nothing remotely socialist about email.
    Socialism requires the central organizing control of government filtering every function. Socialist email would require some third party in authority to read or approve of all your messages and distribute them as they saw fit, since, of course, they aren’t really YOUR messages, but belong to all of us and it’s unfair for some of us to receive more messages than others or, of course, to receive UNHEALTHY messages from which we must be protected for the collective good.
    Ask yourself it you would like Hillarymail… and all other mail being prohibited by law.

  14. Hi Om,

    I first heard about xobni when they were in stealth mode, and doing something for email analytics. Then i just gave a thought about what they can be doing? I discussed it with a couple of my friends, and posted our discussion on my blog. When i saw xobni later, i was happy to see the our discussion becoming a reality. We enumerated a lot of points where possible improvements in email was possible. Following is the link to that post.

  15. Alexander van Elsas

    OM. Good article. I think one of the main reasons e-mail is ideal as a social network tool is that the data is mostly private. This making it a good friend to friend tool. I think most people, when communicating to true friends (friends they know in the physical world as well) will tend to use e-mail for communication or sharing. IM and SMS can have that property as well. It contradicts everything the well-known social network services do, but that is precisely why it works best for sharing. In the end, you have to look at what comes out of a network in value, not what you put into it. I have written an article just about that phenomenon, you can find it here if you like:

  16. Overall, I (probably not too surprisingly) completely agree with the main point — email is still in its infancy. It was the first social networking app, and with a shared renewed interest in moving things forward, I expect the landscape will change radically in the coming years.

  17. I really wonder if yahoo is ignoring its existing assets while going after new ones. When I see Yahoo! groups, which was started long ago, but has no web 2.0 features worth talking about but there are tons of users on that. I think it is the same with msn groups.

  18. Om,

    Your thoughts mesh perfectly with how we feel about the evolution of email at ClearContext. In a nutshell, our belief is that the first critical element is providing context across all of the information currently existing within Outlook – emails, appointments, and to-dos. Once a solution to that issue is in place, the next challenge is integrating in other information sources such as other communication mediums and web services.

    We’ve written a bit about the space, Xobni, and ClearContext in this blog post:

    Deva Hazarika, ClearContext

  19. Great analysis. Now, say Microsoft takes notice, overcomes internal political issues and figures out how to turn its Outlook and Live Mail offerings into email-based versions of LinkedIn and Facebook? I say their window of opportunity for this will remain open for a year. Lots of people are just starting to figure out or become aware of social networking; if you integrate it into popular email platforms, that would make the barrier to entry that much lower.