Aggregating the walled gardens

Social networking will become a ubiquitous feature of online life, says The Economist, but states that this does not mean that social networking is a business.

The Economist has a thoughtful assessment to support its statement on the business of social networks, concluding that social networking will never make lots of money for companies like Facebook, MySpace and others.

What I found most interesting is this central argument in The Economist’s feature:

[…] The problem with today’s social networks is that they are often closed to the outside web. The big networks have decided to be “open” toward independent programmers, to encourage them to write fun new software for them. But they are reluctant to become equally open towards their users, because the networks’ lofty valuations depend on maximising their page views – so they maintain a tight grip on their users’ information, to ensure that they keep coming back. As a result, avid internet users often maintain separate accounts on several social networks, instant-messaging services, photo-sharing and blogging sites, and usually cannot even send simple messages from one to the other. They must invite the same friends to each service separately. It is a drag.

This is to do with walled gardens, about which much has been written lately.

The Economist suggests that web-based email is the answer to walled gardens, arguing that:

[…] The opening of social networks may now accelerate thanks to that older next big thing, web-mail. As a technology, mail has come to seem rather old-fashioned. But Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and other firms are now discovering that they may already have the ideal infrastructure for social networking in the form of the address books, in-boxes and calendars of their users. “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.

It’s a powerful argument and probably the closest thing right now to its realization is Gmail (or Googlemail, depending on where you are) and its potential as a social networking hub, ably suggested by Steve Rubel last year.

Reluctant as I am to even think about using an email service as a social network – poorly managing email is probably my worst characteristic – if it could be one connected element within the whole social graph, then I may well find it too compelling to resist.

In fact, I wouldn’t want to resist it.

It might even help me treat email as a valuable relationship channel rather than as the tiresome communication channel that I see it as now, where my attention to email is diminishing by the day. I’m not the only one with that behaviour.

I’ve tried some ideas for solutions such as Plaxo (no thanks) and Xobni, an Outlook add-in currently in private beta, that presents you with a correspondent’s full communication history including past conversations, attachments and contact details.

It’s not bad but it’s not for me – I do use Outlook but I run another program on top of it called NEO Pro.

A bit long in the tooth now (with no recent development since 2005: if you’re a VC, they might appreciate a call), yet NEO Pro automatically does two of the things with email that I find indispensable that Outlook doesn’t do: classifies my correspondents by name to make them instantly findable, and threads emails into conversation links.

So at the moment, there is no ready solution other than the Gmail-as-a-hub idea from Steve Rubel. But I’m not sure I’m ready to move everything to the cloud yet.

Until there is a truly compelling solution that combines the best of Xobni and NEO Pro into a single app or web service, I’ll keep email separate from my social networks.

And I have an answer right now for managing disparate social networks – FriendFeed and RSS aggregation.

Works for me. For now.