By Jeff Bonforte, CEO of Xobni (and 10+ year vet in messaging space)
A few of the big internet players have made big advances in email/messaging. Way back when, Aol let us know we, in fact, had mail. Yahoo! and Hotmail made it global and free. Microsoft made it work for business with Exchange and Outlook. BlackBerry made it portable. And Gmail took off the storage limits, which, lucky for them, increased the need for better search.
Facebook announced this morning they intend to make two more contributions. They will make messaging social and, undeterred by Google Wave, more realtime.
I will defer to others to address the importance of making messaging more realtime. To me, the biggest announcement is making messaging social, or socially aware as we say here at Xobni.
Making messaging social involves two big steps. First is identity. Messages come from people, not email accounts, yet with the exception of Xobni running in Outlook, no inbox seems to knows the correct answer to “who?”. The next key element of a social inbox is understanding relationships.
Let’s take a minute to understand the depth of the challenge.
The address book can’t help in understanding who is really most important to you. For most active business users of email (our sweet spot), their address book has about 400 contacts (albeit only 40% of that data is correct). But guess how many “people” are actually in the inbox? 4000. And that is average. You can easily interact with over 10,000 people from the age of 20 to 30. So even in the best circumstances, today, the address book doesn’t have even a starting point reference for over 90% of the people in our inbox. [By the way, I am not suggesting we cram 10,000 contacts into our current address books. Address books are even more broken than the inbox…but that is for another post and another product announcement ;)]
When it comes to handling all these thousands of relationships, our brains aren’t much help either. Humans have the capacity to maintain about 150 meaningful relationship (known as the “Dunbar number”) before our brains get muddy.
But people are the one thing Facebook (and Linkedin) understand very well. These social networks can keep track of the identities of tens of millions of people. And by doing this, they won’t just make us happier in our inboxes, they make us more productive. Before I talk about the big blind spot that will challenge Facebook here, let’s examine how understanding people makes the inbox much better:
Massively improved email search.
The first and most popular product we make at Xobni is our improved email search. There aren’t many things in the world a startup can claim to do better than Google, and almost no one can claim to do anything in search better. But when it comes to searching the inbox, Xobni (and Facebook) can do much better than Google.
Why? Perspective. The old inboxes try their best to make sense of our email using adjustments to keyword algorithm search technology. But searching personal data, particularly our inboxes with keyword-based search is mostly ineffective.
Even though we have trained our brains to take a simple query like “that link Terra sent me last week” and to translate it into a unique keyword search with varied levels of success, understanding people and relationships makes this query trivial, as Xobni users can attest.
You simply need to be able to answer the question “who?” and hopefully a bit of “why?”. With this knowledge, getting to the “what?” (the link Terra sent me last week) is pretty simple.
Without Xobni’s help, I don’t believe any inbox today can figure out the difference between Eric Grafstrom (my co-worker at Xobni), Eric Vandenberg (the center on my 8th grade basketball team), and Eric Van Miltenberg (a colleague from my Yahoo! days). Of course the problem is more complex. I don’t just know three “erics”. According to Xobni, I know over 60!
We know that understanding people improves productivity, captured by this simple stat: after a Xobni user tries their first “search by people” instead of keyword, that user is over 85% likely to become a long term active Xobni user.
The big challenge for Facebook: Explicit vs. Implicit data.
Even armed with the identities of over 500M users, Facebook has a big challenge in using social data to make messaging better. In fact, their blind spot might make the problem worse in some regards. The reason is the size and breadth of the index matters. Facebook’s perspective is too narrow. First, it is focused, primarily on our personal relationships, and more importantly, it is heavy in explicit (public) data and light on the more important implicit (private) data.
Explicit data is that which we tell others about ourselves. It is our marketing message to the world. Explicit data is the stuff I publish on social networks and on Twitter. It is what I want the world to think about me, and hear about me, and know about me. But explicit data hides our true relationships. It also can heavily skew relationship relevance, as it relates to improving our productivity.
Here are a few examples: Facebook tells me that the number one “Damion” I know is the lead guitarist of a big Journey cover band. Kind of right. Except, Damion, to me, is my painting contractor, not a guitarist playing next week. This is similar to how Linkedin incorrectly (for me) identifies Nancy as the Director of the Turf Club in Del Mar. She is that…but of course to me, she is my Mom. And Facebook doesn’t, actually, know her at all.
If Facebook remains a single perspective in my life, primarily focused on personal, explicit data, it will miss big opportunities to improve productivity, customize apps and simplify product interfaces.
Making messaging social is a great advancement. And Facebook has a big role to play in making it happen. But there remain significant challenges to Facebook, and their strengths, like for others, can quickly become their weakness. I could go on and on, but will end with this last statement/plea: The more open their platform the more likely we will look back in ten years and thank them for their great contribution to messaging.