Is Email the New Front in the Facebook/Google War?


Earlier this week, Facebook released its Social Inbox and set off a flurry of press about the perseverance of email and the epic battle between Google (s goog) and Facebook. But this isn’t only about email, nor is the fight really between Google and Facebook (and others in the social web), because the relationships users have with each is vastly different (and fairly complimentary).

The rise of the social web (which in the interests of space I’ll simply call the Facebook Camp, but includes socially minded upstarts like LinkedIn, Twitter or Zynga) has encouraged most of us to pour all sorts of interesting data into the Internet, including our music preferences, our relationships, our likes and dislikes, our locations, etc. Facebook has done the best job of collecting this data from us. Of course, both Google and Facebook have amazing core assets when it comes to data about us. Google has leveraged amazing infrastructure assets to build productivity enhancing-applications I can no longer live without, such as Gmail, Search, Sites, Android, Maps, etc.

Monday’s announcement from Facebook that it’s entering the messaging space seemed one of the first head-on moves against my so-called Google Camp (which includes other large tech companies consumers rely on every day such as Yahoo (s yhoo), Apple (s aapl) and Microsoft) (s msft). It quickly reignited deeply held opinions from my peers, many of whom worry about Facebook and all it knows about us. Not me. Some are convinced that, with their new messaging platform, Facebook has everything it needs to finalize world domination. Not me. But it appears the world wants a fight, and both camps seem ready to go.

Is there really a fight here? Of course, both camps want badly to control my identity. But there’s the problem. I don’t have “an” identity. I have many identities, and I like it that way.

Facebook Knows My Friends

With few exceptions, what Facebook knows about me results from my willingness to publicly participate in its primarily personal forum. Google and I have a much more private relationship. I don’t publish my searches on Twitter. I don’t expose my private email correspondence on my wall. And while I’m not sharing my location with Facebook, Google still knows where I am via its Android, calendar, search or maps applications.

When Facebook releases their social-enabled messaging platform, I will certainly use it for some communications, but I’m not ready to cross the line with Facebook. I’ve come to know it as a public-facing forum. I’ve come to expect my behavior on Facebook will be overheard by others I know (or don’t know as is often the case). When I’m engaging with Facebook, I have my “personal public” identity on. Because I know my behavior can being seen by hundreds if not thousands, I work to stay in character.

Facebook is my fun, chatty friend, and when I want to get the word out about something, I readily tell them. I often joke that Facebook has made me far more productive at being unproductive.

Google Knows the Real Me

Facebook certainly doesn’t know everything about me, nor does it have my entire network of relationships or, graph. Far from it. My graph includes thousands of other relationships that are important to me in both my personal and professional life. In fact, I would suspect that Gmail, Android, iOS, and Outlook know far more about my full graph.

Because I’ve used Outlook for over a decade and Gmail for more than five years for email, I’m aware that Google knows far more about me (without even considering what it knows about me from my search habits) than any other company in the world. What Google has learned, it has mostly learned via private (implicit behavior) transactions: things I do without the sense of being watched.

Of course, there are many other identities I maintain that Google doesn’t know as well. Google knows me much less as “son”, “husband” or “father”. Thankfully, many of these revealing interactions with my family happen off-network…that is to say, in person. Nor does Google know too much about my identity as CEO of Xobni, unless I’ve published it via the press or blogs. If anyone would know about this identity, it would be Microsoft or RIM (s rimm), neither of which seem to be doing much listening at this point. (I go further into this implicit/explicit information on Xobni’s blog.)

So how does the new Facebook messaging platform change all this? Obviously, the easiest answer is “we’ll see”. But Facebook faces a massive challenge. For one, I actively choose to keep many of my identities obscured or hidden from Facebook, and that won’t likely change in the short term. Perhaps more importantly, it’s possible that if I did share this part of my identity with Facebook, it could spoil our “productive” social relationship.

This is simply because my professional and personal identities are often in conflict, and the persona I project on Facebook is a carefully curated combination of the two. (Slight self-promotion alert) This is where a service like Xobni comes into play… the data that Xobni gleans from both my explicit self-promotion and implicit interactions is intensely useful to me, but certainly not something I broadcast for public consumption.

Similarly, Google hasn’t done a very good job of inspiring me to share too much with it about my public social identity. Yet, there’s so much room to improve the relationship we already have. Google is very well-positioned to improve its ability to listen to my many thousands of tiny, implicit signals I’m sending via my computer, phone and tablet every day. Google can still help me make massive advances in productivity and effectiveness.

Google is an able and intense competitor. In the end, Facebook’s biggest threat may be evoking in Google a distracting desire to win toe-to-toe. We’ll see.

Jeff Bonforte is the CEO of Xobni, and has worked in email, voice and messaging for more than 10 years. Prior to joining Xobni in 2008, Bonforte ran Social Search and Messenger at Yahoo. He was also President of Gizmo5 (acquired by Google), and founded and lead early online storage pioneer, You can find him on Twitter using @bonforte.

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Yeah, so the word you’re looking for is “complementary”, as in angles, like geometry. Not “complimentary”, as in praise, like fawning.
Second point: You are tantalizingly close to understanding how the group FB and the Goog really want to target, acts. Let me help you: We don’t use FB at all, really, because FB is run by a sociopath who is the social equivalent of the insipid gossiping person that we’ve all encountered at some point in our lives. You remember…the person who compliments us (and everyone else) initially as a false friend, only to disparage us behind our backs at every opportunity? FB does that. They claim privacy, and then expose, by default, again and again, every aspect of any interaction we ever make on FB.
You know why you don’t see that kind of nasty gossiping person in social groups as time goes on? People eventually get wise to the fact that ey are fundamentally not worth having around. That is where FB is heading.
The Google, on the other hand, continues to act responsibly with our trust, like the solid friend whose counsel we keep, but who doesn’t tell re-tell our tales. That person we enjoy having around for the long haul.
FB: the dumb but superficially pretty person that everybody wants to sleep with once, and does.
Google: the smart and clever person that is always there to help us and really make things better in our life.

Easy to see who’s going to win this in the long run.

Dinesh Vadhia

@ jeff
Zuckerberg said that they looked at ‘messaging’ afresh and particularly from the point of view of high school kids. They found that these kids use SMS and IM mainly and find email to be too heavy and formal. The vast majority of FB users are teenagers and young adults who love playing games (eg. Zynga), sharing photos (100m+ uploads per day) and writing short messages.

Your articulate analysis is looking at email from the rest of us fuddy duddy’s! We are not the target users.


The economical war is atm between Facebook and social startups. These are the ones who really get “killed”, all the new features are a very big problem for small competitors like Foursquare. Google is strong financially as always, Facebook was’t able to get a big ad pie from them.

The big deal is where the money goes, both couldn’t profit much from personal information and i don’t think they will ever. When it’s too sensitive for individuals the government will act soon. The big anonymous analysis was the point what made google big.

Allen MacCannell

Hi Jeff,

It’s a really good point to say “Google knows the real me”. I’ve logged off Gmail a few times because I just didn’t trust that a given search wouldn’t be forever connected to me. I’m glad their motto is “Don’t be evil”. =)

That said, I also have to also trust Facebook when I private message one family member. For instance, I privately told one family member recently what the name of a new cousin’s baby would be. If I started getting baby advertising as a result of that private message content, that would make me uncomfortable. I really wouldn’t expect anything I’d written in a private message to ever be revealed by the email provider to anyone.

Regarding the Facebook/Google Email War, I have some points:

1) Google is already woefully behind Facebook, before the war even starts, on providing photos connected to Gmail users. It seems like Google managers have been sound asleep for years and wouldn’t know xobni, Gist or EmailTray from Jack or Jill.

2) Facebook is woefully behind Google, before the war even starts, in providing sorting via a smart algorithm. For those of us who keep Facebook friends down to real friends and family (I have 99 connections), less than 2% of my high priority messages would be from any of them on any given day (except Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve). While it was heartwarming for that Facebook VP Bos (who did the presenting on Monday) to talk about communications with his girlfriend getting a front row seat in his Inbox, I doubt she sends him more than one text per day nor do I believe he wants his Inbox to prioritize often trivial family chat – or even dinner plans – over business action items from critically important people one would otherwise not consider connecting with via their personal Facebook account. Therefore, it seemed to me inadequate when he implied that critical business email senders would start off in the spam box by default where they could be manually adjusted regarding how their future emails would be prioritized. He was completely ignoring Gmail’s Priority Inbox technology.

3) Facebook is woefully behind Google, even before the war starts, in terms of having a message notifier that works when browsers are closed. Not only does Gmail have this, but you can bet they’ll soon enable this notifier with the Priority Inbox technology so Gmail users can get alerted only to the most important messages.

4) Facebook starts the war woefully behind Google in the authentication of incoming mail (anti-phishing technology). They said nothing about that on Monday.

5) Finally, both Facebook and Google don’t seem to have a clue about how the only way they can kill each other off (and kill off other mail providers) is to make sure that messages read and/or deleted on their platform, are also read and/or deleted back at the source (for instance AOL, Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail or in Outlook).

If they can’t do this, email users will find they have to do more work, not less, by processing email at Facebook (or in Gmail for that matter). Why would I read my POP3 email in Facebook or Gmail if, when I open Outlook, I have to mark stuff as read (or delete) that which I already marked read (or deleted) in Facebook or Gmail?


This article gives a much more balanced view of the strengths of Google and Facebook, as compared to the typical Gigaom article which usually goes all gaga over Facebook. This article highlights just how much more Google knows about its users compared to Facebook, which is another thing that most Gigaom articles always miss when they compare FB to Google. Most importantly, this article correctly points out the importance of Google gaining information by our implicit behaviors.

Jeff Bonforte


Good points. Agreed we have one identity. You might say, instead, that our identity has many facets. I think of those facets as each an identity in this post (again conceptually simplified for convenience). Another element of identity that I didn’t get into much here is the relative answer to identity. That is who we are to others rather than that who we claim to be on Twitter, FB, Linkedin, etc.

The answer to “who?” then is only answerable by the other party. And in that way, email is very efficient at determining the answer. This is basically the founding principle behind how Xobni works.

As you point out, I knowingly lumped the whole of social media into the Facebook Camp. The oversimplification was needed to keep the post to 800 words. I took it for granted readers could expand the concept as needed.

Agreed that the war is for the graph. I think my point of the post is that Google is well positioned in this fight…perhaps even better than they give themselves credit for.

Jack C

Interesting piece! Couple of comments:

First, I’m not really comfortable with lumping social media into the waste basket of “Facebook Camp,” “Team Facebook,” or the like. “Social Media” has fewer characters, less inflammatory connotations, and is simply more apt (imho).

Second, whatever this war is about, undoubtedly it is good for users. Broadly speaking, social media stinks out loud, as every new industry tends to. Significant drivers of future innovation are going to be direct competition and user maturation (i.e., a majority of users that have overcome the distraction of *new* technology and are thus able to focus exclusively on social innovations).

Third, you don’t really have multiple identities. Your statement is more an articulation of a problem than a statement of fact. Currently, you have multiple accounts. Despite the moniker, social media companies have not only done an abysmal job at dealing with social identity management, but often have exacerbated it, and they really ought to know better.

As you suggest, identity management (and privacy) is a complex and serious issue. Existing users navigate the its unstable foundation daily; frequently stumble (especially new users); and the lack of control is a real barrier to adoption.

In my view, all of this relates to an evolving and more complex social graph, sacred to the user, coveted by the market, and the true front of the battle.

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