Ignore Orkut, OpenSocial, Yahoo Mash and Yahoo 360. Google and Yahoo have come up with new and very similar plans to respond to the challenge from MySpace and Facebook: They hope to turn their e-mail systems and personalized home page services (iGoogle and MyYahoo) into social networks.
Web-based e-mail systems already contain much of what Facebook calls the social graph — the connections between people. That’s why the social networks offer to import the e-mail address books of new users to jump-start their list of friends. Yahoo and Google realize that they have this information and can use it to build their own services that connect people to their contacts.
I don’t have a lot of detail from Google, but I’ve heard from several executives that this is their plan. When I talked recently with Joe Kraus, who runs Google’s OpenSocial project, he said: “We believe there are opportunities with iGoogle to make it more social.” And when I pressed him about the relationship between the social aspects of iGoogle and Gmail versus Orkut or some other social network, he said, “It is much easier to extend an existing habit than to create a brand.”
Brad Garlinghouse, who runs the communication and community products for Yahoo, was a lot more forthcoming. He didn’t-have dates or specific product details either. But he did say that Yahoo was working on what he called “Inbox 2.0.”
This has several features. First, the e-mail service is made more personal because it displays messages more prominently from people who are more important to you. Yahoo is testing a method that can automatically determine the strength of your relationship to someone by how often you exchange e-mail and instant messages with him or her.
“The inbox you have today is based on what people send you, not what you want to see,” Mr. Garlinghouse said. “We can say, here are the messages from the people you care about most.
Yahoo Mail will also be extended to display other information about your friends as well. This can be a link to a profile page, and also what Yahoo calls “vitality” –- updated information much like the news feed on Facebook. There could also be simple features that are common on social networks, like displaying a list of friends whose birthdays are coming up.
“The exciting part is that a lot of this information already exists on our network, but it’s dormant,” Mr. Garlinghouse said.
What Yahoo is missing in this vision is a personal profile, where users express their interests and personality to others. Yahoo, of course, has had many different takes on this over the years: its member directory, Geocities, Yahoo 360. It recently started Yahoo Mash. But none of these is quite right, Mr. Garlinghouse said. Mash is simply an experiment, not a product being readied for mass promotion.
There will be some sort of profile system attached to Inbox 2.0, he said. For people who use a lot of Yahoo services, this profile could be quite rich even at the beginning, as it can draw on activity on Yahoo Music, Yahoo Shopping and so on.
“If I get an e-mail from Saul Hansell, I should be able to click on his name and see his profile,” Mr. Garlinghouse said. “The profile page is where you can expose what you want people to know about you.
In this vision, people have two pages: a profile they show to others and a personal page on which they see information from their friends as well as anything else they want, like weather or headlines. That’s different from MySpace, which combines all this into one page.
Already My Yahoo and iGoogle are increasingly collections of widgets that hold content and applications from multiple sources, some of them already social, like e-mail and feeds from social sites like Flickr. But much more is coming.
This approach has a lot of potential and a few pitfalls. To start with, everyone who joins Facebook understands that what they do on the site is about sharing information with friends and sometimes strangers. People who use Yahoo Mail, or just exchange messages with someone using a Yahoo Mail account, have no such expectations. So the company will have to be very careful in how it explains what it is doing and ask for permission in the right places.
“This isn’t a separate product,” Mr. Garlinghouse said. “This is an integration that has to be seamless to the user.”
What’s more, running social networks is like starting nightclubs. You need music and beer, of course, and some hard-to describe magic that draws people to the club. Yahoo and Google are so big that the most they could aspire to would be to create the online equivalent of a crowded bar at a train station, rather than a club for a particular sort of person.
But since Yahoo and Google already have hundreds of millions of people visiting each month, it may well be that they can get a fair number to stop and chat.
Saul Hansell, BITS blog, New York Times
A good move. Every social networking site now offers private messaging service. Their features are very limited and more importantly, in separated sites.
Net users still depend a lot on their primary mailboxes for the mainstream messages.
Delivering social networking into the mailbox is just so fantastic natural: bring the outer layers into the core.
As for personalized homepages, it is not a big surprise, as with a few content wrapper tweaks, I can make a netvibes page a integrated social networking space now. This is an example:
click the image