Social email ranges from cool to creepy

In this past week I’ve been barraged with new email add-ons and applications, ranging from the almost wonderful to the downright scary. This has led me back to a renewed commitment to the spare and familiar functionality of Google Gmail, not just because I rely on browser-based add-ons that play well with Gmail to manage my work, but also because no one has really provided a product that could be considered a more social replacement for email.

Social tools share some basic principles, and one is the distinction between push communications, as exemplified in email, as opposed to pull communications, as most obviously shown in open following solutions like Twitter and Tumblr.

The capabilities of push that make email powerful are based on the originator of a message deciding on who should see the message, which makes it easy to distribute information to a well-defined group of people, like all the employees of a company, or everyone on a spammer’s mailing list. But this power is easily misused, and not just by spammers, but because email can be sent to anyone that you have an email address for, and because the recipients are living at the bottom end of a power imbalance: email is easy to send, but time consuming to make sense of.

The rise of pull communication — where I can choose who I want to follow — changes the communication dynamic greatly. Rather than the originator choosing recipients, the followers chose who to follow.

This clear inversion is muddied by the need for private messaging, but largely we have seen the gradual ascent of the instant messaging buddy list paradigm, which is some version of the axiom ‘those that I follow (and follow me) can send me private messages (although I can opt to block them or unfollow them)’.

But email has not been rooted out of our communications spectrum. The principal reason — I believe — is that email is a protocol — an international standard — while the notions of identity and communications found in social tools are largely a growing chaos of proprietary implementations. So someone using Facebook or Google+ cannot cross authenticate their identity and send me a private message on Twitter, for example. So both parties in a private social exchange would have to be using the same platform. This could be remedied if an email-like protocol for private messaging and identity management were in place, but, alas, there is no unanimity on such a thing.

So in the meantime, we are left with email for the purpose of communicating with random people — even those that we know well — but with whom we do not share a social platform. And as a result, most of us receive dozens of email each day if not hundreds, because along with important messages from co-workers and family, email is also the junk mail for the modern world, as well.

Google’s recent addition of categories is an effort to algorithmic filter various sorts of email into folders without users having to laboriously define filters to do so (see Gmail’s new tabbed interface impacts email marketing negatively). And that feature (see below) is one of the many reasons I find it hard to switch from Gmail.

I’ve often wondered why Gmail’s designers don’t provide a more social view, based on the identity of the person or people I am communicating with, though. That would be a sensible and useful alternative for what is shown in the primary tab.

And that is an approach taken by one of the companies I looked at this week.

Molto

Molto is a new email app by Perion for smartphones and tablets, organized around the idea of the social view I mentioned.

Here’s the Molto equivalent of Google’s tabs, which aren’t exactly the same, so going back and forth is maddening.

2013-10-25 14.29.53

Molto identifies people you communicate with alot, and these are identified as ‘all stars’:

2013-10-25 14.30.09

Molto has put a great deal of effort into the user experience, relying on gestural mechanisms to archive, expand, etc. But I couldn’t find the equivalent of Gmail’s mechanism of dragging an email that was in the wrong tab to correct Google’s analysis.

At any rate, after a short period of use, I decided that Molto wasn’t really social enough to warrant the effort. For example, the daily digest from my task management app kept appearing in my ‘personal’ tab.

LinkedIn Intro

Linkedin has released Intro, which is intended to add Linkedin profile information to emails, in a way reminiscent of Rapportive. That should come as no surprise since Linkedin acquired Rapportive a few years ago, and that team developed Intro. However, Rapportive runs as yet-another of those browser plug-ins that I find it hard to give up, while Intro is much more sinister.

Here’s the UI:

2013-10-23 14.10.21

Currently implemented as an iPhone app, Intro takes a circuitous — and insecure — route to provide this snippet of info (and a lot more, if you click on the links). First of all, this is not a browser plugin, scraping information and fetching data from Linkedin. The app operates by pulling all your incoming email from your email service — in my case, Gmail — and sucks that into the servers at Linkedin. There it has access to everything in your email — the content, metadata, attachments, everything — which is at the least worrisome, and at the worst, totally insecure.

I am sure that this goes across the grain of most enterprise security policies.

Finally, the ‘app’ installs itself as some sort of parasite to the iOS Mail account, and to delete it you can’t use the normal iOS approach of pressing on the app icon and then clicking on the ‘x’ in the upper left hand corner. You have to deprovision from within the app. Strange.

After fooling with it for a few minutes, I deleted it. In a world in which the NSA is scooping up everyone’s email by secret doings with email providers, maybe I shouldn’t be worried that Linkedin wants to access my email  too, but somehow, I do. I have a long list of other tools that want to help me learn more about those I am in contact with, like Rapportive, Tempo, and others, so I will simply avoid this radioactive mess.

Hop

I’d like to tell you about the social aspects of Hop, a new email tool, but I can’t. I have 37,184 people queued up in front of me for the beta.

2013-10-26 14.27.51

It seems like Hop can present a chat sort of UI on email exchanges, which is attractive, and also allows custom alerts for those whose emails you want to respond to quickly.

A fuller review will follow, if I ever get to the beta.

Unibox

Unibox is another email app — in this case a native Mac app — that organizes email in a social way, pulling the thread of emails from specific people into a stream of communication.

Screenshot 2013-10-26 14.57.56

 

However, I didn’t download the app because the company’s charging $10, and no free trial. Ouch.

Bottom Line

I think there is an obvious next generation of email coming, one that will be based on the ideas surfacing in all these experiments, and it will have the following features:

  1. Social email will provide old school style presentation of email — an inbox where all emails are equally impersonal — as well as new, social presentations.
  2. Tabs — a la Gmail — will segregate emails from apps, companies, and platforms from those with people.
  3. Within the people-to-people communication domain we will see:
    1. Chat-style presentation of email exchanges
    2. ‘Film strips’ of all recent attachments shared to or from a specific person, especially images
    3. Information pulled from other services as background info, like recent calendar entries with the person, Twitter exchanges, etc., and the possibility to create those right in the email stream
  4. All of the features of 3, but with groups of people.

This will represent the socialization of email, where all the old style of interaction will still be supported, so that you can receive bills and updates, and participate on mailing lists. But the most important email exchanges — with people that are well known to you, and with whom you share more context — will occur in a much more social context.

So, email won’t die, ultimately. Email will just become part of the social web: another part of a slow revolution.