eView: Same Script, Different Cast -- How Social Networking Can Learn From E-mail
Social networking is still in its infancy, but already we have seen rapid evolution in the way that consumers and marketers alike are using the new channel. One of the things I can't help but notice is the similarity between the way social networking is evolving and how e-mail evolved. While there are some things that are different and/or better this time around, there are many aspects that are the same. It's like watching the remake of a movie when you've seen the original. The actors are all different, but the basic story is the same.
Just before e-mail really opened up, we had a number of separate, proprietary networks that looked a lot like the social networks of today. There was America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy. (OK, let's not forget eWorld.)
Each service was a walled garden -- users of the same service could send e-mails to each other but not across different providers. Each service had similar but slightly different capabilities. For example, some allowed the sender to "withdraw" a message after sending it as long as the recipient had not viewed it yet. Others had pictures or styled text.
Then, slowly they opened up and allowed their members to send messages outside their service. This was a huge win for users, even though they had to give up some of their fancy features in favor of the "lowest common denominator" solution.
Jump forward 20 years, and we see striking similarities between the e-mail of then and the social networks of now. Now it's Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn instead of AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy. Originally closed networks, all three have opened up more and more to messaging with outside users.
Facebook's platform and Google's OpenSocial -- a set of common application programming interfaces for Web-based social network applications -- both promise to bring standardization to social messaging. It's only a matter of time before you can send an e-mail from Hotmail directly to a Facebook user or from MySpace directly to an AOL user.
Possibly more significant is how deliverability and reputation are evolving similarly within social networks as they did within e-mail. Social networking marketers will have all the same deliverability challenges as in e-mail, only this time the receivers get more user feedback and are building smarter reputation systems from the start.
Already, Facebook uses a combination of implicit and explicit user feedback to build a reputation for applications and decide how many of its news feed notifications actually show up for users. Just because you send a notification to a user's mini-feed doesn't mean that all of his or her friends will see it. Facebook looks at how many active users subscribe to your application and how many users block your messages to determine how many messages they'll let you deliver tomorrow.
Applications with lots of users can send lots of messages. New applications are throttled while they build reputation. Applications that get lots of complaints in various forms are penalized. Does this sound familiar?
From a technical perspective, high-volume senders will need to customize their solution for different social networks. Just because both networks have implemented OpenSocial doesn't mean that they will work exactly the same way. Yahoo and Hotmail both accept SMTP (simple mail transfer protocol) connections, but sophisticated senders customize the number of IP (Internet protocol) addresses used, number of connections per address, number of messages sent per connection, header content and other factors to optimize delivery for each receiving domain. We can expect to see the same technical optimizations for the various social networks. And just like e-mail, we can expect to see them change frequently.
It's not just technology. E-mail Internet service providers also have different business rules and quality standards. What permission level is required to send e-mail? How many messages are too many? How many complaints are acceptable? What's the best way to resolve problems? In the same way, different social networking sites will have different best practices for messaging to their users.
With so many similarities between social networking and e-mail, I'm optimistic that we will be able to learn from our experiences with e-mail and avoid some of the same mistakes. Already it's clear that social networking sites have better user feedback than with e-mail and are using this to build more sophisticated reputation systems. The e-mail deliverability community should be working together with the social networking community to make sure the new reputation systems have sender feedback, dispute resolution and transparency built in from the beginning.
Joshua Baer is the general manager of emerging media at Datran Media, an online marketing services firm based in New York. Joshua can be reached at em+C@joshuabaer.com. You can also reach him at his blog at www.austinpreneur.com.