Google Buzz and the Challenges of Using Email as a Social Graph

I’ve been playing with Google Buzz for a few days, mostly to get a better sense for the interaction model. I’m a heavy Gmail user, so I’ve been particularly interested in how the service integrates with Gmail. While I have enjoyed using Buzz, it has helped crystalize some of my thoughts about why using email to bootstrap a social graph is a really challenging proposition.

My Gmail inbox is really a catch-all place for communications. Its composition includes transient and long-term relationships, business and personal communications, and a host of other things that I file away for later review. I tend to treat my gmail Inbox like a big junk searchable junk drawer -it’s a good place to keep stuff for later use.

That being said, if you wanted to bootstrap a social graph from my inbox behavior, you would need to understand a few things:

Context – For any given person with whom i communicate, what’s the context? Are we friends? Colleagues? Business associates? Alums from the same school or program? All of this matters as it determines what I might want to share with them.

Flow – What’s the direction of the communication? How often do we communicate? Is it unidirectional or bidirectional? Take Amazon, for example. I receive and read a lot of email from Amazon. But I nee wrote back. I also have people in my inbox who send me lots of interesting stuff, but it’s mostly a broadcast relationship. Raw communications volume is not necessarily a good proxy.

The two issues above can easily be solved by making a system opt-in. That alleviates the need for Google to try to infer context and flow as I can do that heavy lifting for the system by choosing which people to include and invite.

The reality, though, is that Google is a bit late to this party. Let’s dissect the situation. Google’s best and biggest social graph (or the biggest and best social graph that they can access and index) is Gmail. They can’t get at Facebook or Twitter, so they have to work with what they have. While an opt-in system, would have been more privacy-friendly, it almost certainly would slow adoption and growth. Inviting people to something new is time consuming. And a service like Buzz isn’t interesting or useful until you have enough people on it, sharing information, and engaging to make it feel vibrant. So if Google wanted to try to catch up in social content sharing, the fastest path would be to put it in Gmail and make it default opt-in.

I’m also waiting for Google to start looking at what I’m doing in Gmail and starting to insert contextual Buzz prompts. For example, how long will it be before I’m sending out a link to a cool YouTube video to a group of friends and I get a prompt to post it to buzz in addition? The same is true of Picasa photos, Flickr photos, or any thee piece of web content. Gmail Labs already has some handlers that can detect and display certain types of content – why not apply those to Buzz?

In th end, Buzz will work of it drives traffic to content sites or helps people engage around content.