Email – The Original Social Graph

I’ve been an Internet email user since early 1984 when I got my first Project Athena account as an undergraduate at MIT.  Notwithstanding all the “email is dead” messages over the years, I continue to use email as my primary online communication mechanism.  There are an enormous number of things that frustrate me about email, most notably the lack of fundamental innovation in email clients and servers.  That said, as a messaging tool – it still dominates for me.

Several years ago I started saying that “my social graph is in email.”  I found it interesting that Facebook and LinkedIn used email as a primary messaging layer to remind me to come back to Facebook and LinkedIn respectively to check what was going on.  This signaled confirmation to me that these systems were making sure they were using the most persistent messaging layer to build and reinforce their social graphs.

For whatever reason, the primary email product providers have been either painfully slow at realizing this or have decided to ignore this.  Facebook and LinkedIn have benefitted massively from this, but the biggest recipient of this neglect is Twitter which has created an entirely new messaging protocol (think Twitter API as analogous to SMTP).

Suddenly, in the past year, entrepreneurs have woken up to the potential of the email social graph.  As I’ve mentioned before, we invested in Gist to directly address this opportunity.  Xobni is another well known company that is attacking this.  But another intriguing fact is the number of younger entrepreneurs that are working on this problem.  Each of the TechStars locations (Boulder and Boston) has a company that – at its core – is built around the premise of email as the original social graph.  In addition, as a mentor in the fbFund Rev 2009 program, I’ve recently started working with another company working on yet a different angle to this problem.

Now, these companies aren’t creating new email clients.  They are working on products or web services that take advantage of all the implicit information generated by your email activity.  They aren’t limited to just email (if you are a Gist user, you understand this well), but use email ( as a key information pivot point.  If you step back and think about it, while is new and full of yummy chocolaty goodness, is really my “unique” identifier.

I’m not going to talk about the three new companies I’m working with on this problem yet – I’ll let them “launch” on their own timetable and I’ll talk about them when they are ready.  In the mean time, I’ve continuing to look to talk to more people that share this premise.  If that’s you, feel free to email me.

  • I'm also convinced that whatever simple or sophisticated way of communicating on the Internet (call it Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, whatever), the basic piece of identification, and thus, of identity is the mail address.
    A few years back, it was still hard for me to explain to "internet newbies" what the concept of having one email adress by <profile, identity on the web, digital soul, whatever>.
    "So, I can be AND ALSO "

    So, I bet you can build useful data if you plug yourself into this Holly Inbox.
    I've been trying for a couple of months to introduce some friends(that i have on a sort of "mailing-list" on gmail ) the concept of "social network".

    Jiiiiz… No way I could convince them to suscribe to any other geeky/trendy/wizzy 2.0 application.
    "As long as we stay on gmail, we're fine, Zack".
    They told me.

    And I'm pretty sure that if I can make my friends get "social", many many other small groups of people would make the same step…

  • What I've found interesting lately is the increasing evidence that with teens and young adults that email is a secondary form of communication. (I'm like you, email is my hub (since 1986).) Facebook and MySpace and their internal messaging and wall postings along with phone txting appear to be pretty strong. Increasingly twitter appears to be moving up the generation chain — as parents discover and start using the same tools, kids move away. I suspect that people change over time, especially as they enter into the workplace, but I've yet to really see anything that confirms this.

  • I’ve seen this trend a lot.  All you have to do is work with some 21 year olds and watch them evolve from a “Facebook only” world to a “Facebook for my friends” / “email for work” world.  There’s a lot going on here in terms of social / human behavior that is going to drive a lot of change in the next five years.

  • Brad,

    Great post as usual and we, at Gist totally agree. We have parts of this working and plan to put it out later in the year. We have our own ideas on the value, but would love more from your readers. Assuming you had a node based social graph, are you more interested in views of your own data (who is related to who) or traversing other people data (you know Jason and Jason knows Bob, so can Jason introduce you to Bob). In this scenario, considering privacy and security is important.

    Another great scenario is to consider that Jason likes X and you like X, who else across your social graph and even yours + Jason's, like X. This is a pattern matching scenario and important to get the signal to noise ratio right.

    Both of the latter scenarios are mostly about finding new connections vs. traversing your current ones.

    What other ideas/use cases do people have?

  • Brad-

    I absolutely believe this and view email as the "common denominator" across applications and processes. I wrote up a blog post on this a couple years ago arguing that email is the original and ranking social graph for the following reasons:

    1. It is active, not passive – the act of sending an email is an indication of social connection (aspired or otherwise)
    2. Used ubiquitously – nothing new to learn
    3. Growing – not going away any time soon
    4. Dependable – if you send it, it will get there or you will get it back

    Fast forward two years and this is core to what we are doing at Gist.

  • What do you think about Google Wave – in so far as an email UI innovation – and one that unifies other types of communication as well?

  • I should have included Google Wave in the post as an example.  There’s a whole category of “unified communication” which this fits in and is a good example of where there is some innovation that has been going on.  In the case of Google Wave, it’s a very interesting thing, if only that all the techies are looking at it.  Once it’s actually in production and live, we’ll know a lot more about whether or not it can fulfill the excitement it has generated all ready.  

    • I'm not sure that Wave will do it. It might, it sure looks interesting, but I think the coming trend is for people to essentially divide their online life into their "published" life and their email life. I think the rub with Wave and some of the others is that it tries to blend the two.

      What we need, I think, is a better email client that understands that everything in that arena is private. Then we need some new client to deal with reading and writing to blogs, social nets, etc.

      It took a long time for average people to use email AND a browser; maybe 10 years. I think now we need a third application. There are a number of candidates that are getting closer, but none of them is quite there yet.

    • I'm really excited by Wave, because it seems to be built around the fundamental unit of a conversation, rather than an individual message. I think that's exactly the right way to look at it.

      The name made sense immediately too — a conversation might start in one place (a blog, say) and spread elsewhere (other blogs) and then spur private email conversations. I can already picture waves traveling outward, across the internet, from an original splash.

      The fact that not only will Google be rolling this out soon and promoting it to their entire base of gmail users, but also opening both the protocol and a working implementation, strikes me as unprecedented. The application platform component of it, a big important trend on the internet right now, is just one more piece that almost gets lost in the mix!

      I hope it is a success, because I already want to use it both as a user and as a developer.

  • Email as the original social graph was an idea I first heard from xobni (outlook plugin) which I abandoned because it used way too many system resources. I'll have to take a look at Gist – I've heard great things about it.

  • There is some fascinating research coming out of MIT/NYU on the economic value of email contact lists. Some of it has been summarized in the book "The Numerati" by Stephen Baker (and also in a Business Week article), and some of it published by Sinan Aral and others:

    I have written a summary 'white paper' on this topic which is available for free download here:


  • We just finished a major milestone with our order processing and use email as opposed to requiring our manufacturers, distributors and customers to interface with the web application. Today I really put it to the test for the first time and saw very encouraging results. In fact, I've never seen transactions happen so fast.

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  • vastav

    Yahoo! open mail is an interesting initiative in this space. Yahoo is working on unlocking the power of social graph in its popular email service.

  • i used to work for a company called Netidentity that owned 30,000 + surname-based domains and used them to provide personalized ( email addresses. we always hoped that the use of the email address as the primary identifier would add huge value to the business and allow us to build partnerships with large portals that wanted to build sticky, lasting relationships with their users by giving them a truly personalized identifier. unfortunately, nobody ever bit on this concept, and we got bought based instead on the value of our domains and cash flow from ad clicks. i was surprised to have read your post and see that this idea still might have some legs, if i'm reading it right.

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