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A More Social Gmail

In Email, Social Networks on January 1, 2012 at 6:26 am

With little hoopla, Google just added a social feature to Gmail.

Launching Google+ in June, 2011 was a bold move for Google. Among the less obvious reasons: Circles, a central Google+ component, competes with components of other contact management systems Google maintains (Gmail Contacts and Google Contacts).

My product manager self was wondering what’s the plan for the three Google contact management systems. It’s a tough one. Mandatory upgrades, voluntary migration and re-integration, all pose technical, product and corporate challenges. Migrating millions of Gmail users is a project from hell. It might hurt Gmail users and dilute the value of Google+.

Google+ Circles in GmailMy bet is that because the social wave is here to stay, redesigning older email platforms around innovative social interaction concepts is inevitable. On Dec. 2009, I wrote “Hopefully, Google’s strategy considers meshing Wave and Gmail“. Google Wave’s team leader, Lars Rasmussen, has since joined Facebook, but others led Google into the so-called Emerald Sea. Now, on December 2011, Google takes another step in the social direction by making Circles appear as a sort of “smart labels” in Gmail (see Google blog).

Using social circles as email filters is more than an enhancement – it’s a path to correcting a traditional weakness of email in general. The weakness being that originally and inherently, email is a one-to-one thing, detached from social groups.

This statement often meets with puzzlement. But surely, engineers say, you can email a group of people? This is true, but hardly relevant. Precisely because we can email several people at once, we read more emails than we write. Email is primarily a reading activity, so it’s more important to read those emails we need. We decide which emails to read first based on social context. We need to read those emails we have made an obligation to read. This is why we need to read them in the order of obligation. This is the stuff that actual social relations are made of.

Try this: I, a consultant, need to daily view email messages from my clients. The main Gmail tool that helps me do that is search. I can type and search for each of my clients’ email addresses, one by one – not too practical for a daily task. Another option is to use an advanced “filter”. I can group my clients into a “Clients” label, then view the label. Not a biggie – if you’re comfortable with regular expressions; and if you’re willing to modify an OR […] OR […] OR […] statement each time you win a client, or lose one.

(I actually do all that, on a regular basis. For me, it’s worth the trouble. But I wouldn’t bet on my system to be embraced by consumers and beat Facebook.)

This is where the new Gmail integration breathes new meaning into both Circles and Gmail. Using Circles as dynamic labels, one can make sure one sees first things first. Arranging your Circles by the relation of contacts to your life segments, you naturally create Circles for projects or life areas. You’ll never again miss an important email, and it’ll work much more predictably that the so-Google “Important” filter.

Using Circles as Gmail labels is still far from perfect, but it illustrates the idea that email messages* are primarily made of social interactions. The social relations producing them and emanating from them are their most important aspects.

(*The same goes for calendar events and todo tasks, and that’s material for another post. )

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