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November 16, 2007

And The Answer Is…

The answer is “we don’t know.” The question is “what did you guys decide in your discussion yesterday about the future of email?” But we learned a lot and hypothesized even more. Of course, being blogger types, we’ll share and also hope you can add to the discussion.

Is email dead? Fred Wilson has a good post today pointing out that email has become just part of an array of messaging options. His list of the others:

“Instant Messaging
Blogging (each post is a message)
Skyping (text+voice)
Voice Mail Transcription (voice to text)
Twittering/FB status update
Web mail
Web site messaging (FB messages)
Comments on social media
Social gestures (actions in the news feed)
Text messaging (sms)”

I’d add to Fred’s assertion that each blog post is a message the interesting analogy that each comment is a “reply all” but not as annoying as reply alls in email which tend to fill inboxes with unwanted messages.

We spent a lot of time talking about social networks both because Jeff Pulver gave an impassioned description of life in his social media living room and because all of these messaging options above and many others rely on and create a “social graph”. One way to think about an application like Facebook or MySpace is as an explicit way to manage, use, extend and restrict your social graph.

So what’s a social graph? (Mary says I need to point out that I’m using graph in its mathematical meaning of the lines that connect points and not in the vernacular meaning of a line that looks like a mountain range and is used to represent or misrepresent some trend.) You and all the people you communicate with are the points on a social graph. One way to draw that graph is with all the lines radiating from you; but, of course, the people you communicate also communicate with each other so there are even more lines. Once you start to draw lines out from the other nodes (people), you start to create a larger social graph which contains your own graph; this is the friends-of-friends graph. Etc. Etc.

Way before there was an Internet, people made good use of the information in their social graph to decide, among other things, how much attention to pay to strangers. “I would like to introduce you to…”; “I’m a friend of…”; “…said I should look you up”; “you’re from Vermont; do you know…”

Arguably the Internet and all the ways of messaging on it have increased the need for us to use our social graph to filter wanted communication from spam, information from noise. It’s become much easier for more people to reach us but we don’t have any more hours in the day to absorb or respond to messages. We don’t want to be cut off from making new friends but we do want a way to be selective – especially when making unseen e-friends.

A simple application of the social graph is that some spam filters block mail from anyone not in your address book. Facebook uses a positive approach to do filtering: you only befriend and open yourself up for communication with people whose invitations of friendship you’ve accepted or people who’ve accepted yours. But note an important aspect of befriending on Facebook: when you get a “friend request”, you are able to see which friends you and the stranger have in common. A simple spam filter is indiscriminate compared to using “friends of friends”.

You can imagine an inbox which arranges your messages according to how well-connected the sender is on your own social graph; well-connected could be interpreted in number of ways including gross number of connections; volume of communication on each connection; connection strength weighted by how close you are in terms of volume of communications with each of the connectees of the sender; the quality of connection as measured by messages in rather than messages out (someone whom people write to a lot is putatively more interesting to hear from than someone who sends a lot and gets no replies).

This gets interesting when you realize that email systems like gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo Mail already have the information necessary to construct and mine these graphs (hopefully with your permission) as do Microsoft Exchange servers. Bloggers, the links between blogs, and the comments on blogs are also social graphs AND they can be connected to the social graphs of other messaging forms. So far each messaging form like email, IM, phone calling etc. has had its own social graph in the form of an addressbook. But we nodes are using all modes.


BTW, Fred said that he is about to write about social graphs as well so look for his post.

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