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

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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 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, Apple and Microsoft). 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, 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, i-drive.com. You can find him on Twitter using @bonforte.

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