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Will Email Really Be the Next Social Network?

Posted by: Rob Hof on November 14

That’s what Saul Hansell suggests in his blog post about Google and Yahoo leveraging their email systems to create social networks. On the surface, it makes a lot of sense, given the huge numbers of email accounts and the wealth of personal data locked up inside email systems. But I’m still dubious.

For one thing, the mere fact that I get email from particular people, or even that they’re on my contact list, doesn’t necessarily indicate they’re friends, or influential with me, or even known to me at all. I don’t know the vast majority of people in my corporate Outlook contact list, for instance, because it includes thousands of people throughout McGraw-Hill, BusinessWeek’s owner. So I really wonder what kind of social network could be crafted out of my Outlook. Maybe Visible Path, which is melding social networking into work tools, has figured this out, but that’s only on the corporate side.

Also, I don’t have only one email address, and I’m sure the one for work would present a very different me in such social networking staples as profiles and news feeds than my Yahoo mail or Gmail or others. It seems doubtful a single email provider like Yahoo or Google can create profiles broad enough to represent the whole me, or help me present different me’s for different sets of friends and colleagues. More than ever, we need something like OpenID, but I don’t know how soon that’s going to catch on widely, given all the challenges.

Plus, I can certainly imagine our IT folks would find some way to mess with, or prevent me from installing, whatever software add-on I’d need. I tried Xobni, for instance, and while it looks useful as a way of injecting some social smarts into Outlook, it also pretty much froze my machine. I gather they’ve fixed that problem, but I’m wary of adding anything onto an already pokey Outlook.

Yet another problem is that a whole lot of people under 30 or so don’t really use email except to communicate with old fogeys like me who do. Microsoft’s Don Dodge contends that email is a natural social network because people live in their email box, but that’s no longer universal. There are many people with whom I communicate only through Facebook messaging. So the group of people most likely to try out a new scheme for turning email into social networks are precisely the same group who won’t do it because email’s so ’90s. Which makes me wonder if IM systems might produce better social networks, since these are people you really do interact with a lot. Except I don’t use IM much myself, simply because few of my friends do.

I do think a few social networks—big ones like MySpace or Facebook, and small niche ones like the customized networks you can set up on the likes of Ning—will thrive as hangouts or hubs of social activity. And for all those caveats, I wouldn’t put it past Google or Yahoo to provide ways to let me use my email contacts and even message contents to create some useful social services.

But I also tend to agree with Larry Dignan that many social networking utilities will become features of all the online services I use, rather than just places to go. It just seems like this could take some time. With the kind of momentum Facebook has, and social network fatigue already setting in, I’m not sure the other contestants have a lot of time to mess around

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Hoover’s Launches Business Social Network ‘Connect’

The company markets its Visible Path acquisition as a non-intrusive way to make targeted contacts with key business people through contacts subscribers already have.



Business information portal Hoover’s this week launched a social networking tool it hopes will help make introductions easier and link its users together.Called Hoover’s Connect, the free site moved out of beta testing on Wednesday and will compete with other business social networks like LinkedIn and ZeroDegrees. Hoover’s said its subscribers can use the Connect tool for business insight and non-intrusive way to make targeted contacts with key business people through contacts subscribers already have.

“The combination of the underlying technology with the weighting mechanisms and privacy considerations make Hoover’s Connect a leap beyond anything currently offered by either social networking or other business information services,” Hoover’s President David Mather said. “It is the first offering to integrate insight about who to contact with the tools to act on that insight, all from one location, without interrupting workflow, and while still protecting and preserving the privacy of users and end targets.”

The launch coincides with Hoover’s agreement to acquire Visible Path, the company that powered Hoover’s Connect beta tests. The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The Hoover’s service is pretty straightforward as a social network tool. When subscribers research a company record, they can click a “Connect” button to find referral paths within their own network. The tool automatically highlights the strongest path. A Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) Outlook plug-in applies social networking algorithms to automatically rate relationship strength and help users build their networks. Users can also build their networks by inviting colleagues to join.

The Connect software scours calendars and e-mail to determine and rate the strength of relationships. The tool allows users to evaluate the potential of a networking opportunity and tailor communications accordingly.

To highlight the effectiveness of proper introductions, the company points to research from the University of Chicago and University of North Carolina business schools that found introductions made through trusted sources are up to 16 times more likely to yield responses than cold calls.

“Hoover’s Connect keeps me in touch with past and current colleagues and allows me to build a network of new relationships that are relevant to my industry and experiences,” Andy Sweis, senior business intelligence analyst for PepsiCo, said in a prepared statement. “The technology searches both my information and that of my colleagues to establish new relationships based on appropriate matches. Hoover’s Connect saves me time and effort by eliminating the need to search manually for connections that might help form new, beneficial business relationships.”

Hoover’s said the service maintains privacy protections. Users can control what material is searched and e-mail content is never viewed or scanned, the company said. Users can also control who can access their network. And, they can remain cloaked or identify themselves.

“This sales companion finally unites the tasks of discovering ‘who’s crucial to your sale’ with ‘how to get them to answer your call,” Chuck Richard, Outsell, Inc. VP and lead analyst, said in a prepared statement. “What’s especially interesting is how Hoover’s Connect taps such rich company insights and interlocking webs of network connections while also protecting your privacy with extensive controls on who gets access to what.”

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