Online Social Networks and Email

The Economist runs a fantastic article this week about online social networks. The article compares online social networks today to web-based email services last decade.

I think it’s interesting how Facebook isn’t actually worth much; the biggest asset of Facebook perhaps is the social graph. This is the “web” of connection between different people. I’ve discussed this in the past, my online social graph lives on Facebook. This is why I would instantly switch to an IM client which utilised Facebook’s social graph with a seamless interface to other IM networks.

But it is true that the quality of social graphs tend to decrease over time. It takes time and effort to update your social graph which nobody does. I’ve actually seen it in my usage of Facebook applications. Some applications will ask you questions about your friends and probably more often than not, I barely even know the person it’s asking me about.

But it looks like the guys at Mozilla Thunderbird have a fantastic new vision for e-mail as an online social network:

“E-mail in the wider sense is the most important social network,” says David Ascher, who manages Thunderbird, a cutting-edge open-source e-mail application, for the Mozilla Foundation, which also oversees the popular Firefox web browser.

That is because the extended in-box contains invaluable and dynamically updated information about human connections. On Facebook, a social graph notoriously deteriorates after the initial thrill of finding old friends from school wears off. By contrast, an e-mail account has access to the entire address book and can infer information from the frequency and intensity of contact as it occurs. Joe gets e-mails from Jack and Jane, but opens only Jane’s; Joe has Jane in his calendar tomorrow, and is instant-messaging with her right now; Joe tagged Jack “work only” in his address book. Perhaps Joe’s party photos should be visible to Jane, but not Jack.

He goes on to talk about privacy:

This kind of social intelligence can be applied across many services on the open web. Better yet, if there is no pressure to make a business out of it, it can remain intimate and discreet. Facebook has an economic incentive to publish ever more data about its users, says Mr Ascher, whereas Thunderbird, which is an open-source project, can let users minimise what they share. Social networking may end up being everywhere, and yet nowhere.

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