Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Everything's Social, Like It Or Not

I've been a big fan of Google's Gmail service for a long time. Some of the reasons for my enthusiasm about it are obvious: the massive storage (a new idea when it was introduced), and the excellent search capabilities. Another big plus for Gmail: the interface. Whereas Yahoo Mail and Hotmail and AOL were making otherwise very good services quite unpleasant to use by bombarding users with ads, headlines, and all kinds of other extraneous information that had nothing to do with the simple task of reading and writing mail, Google gave us their standard text-oriented, plain as can be interface. And I loved it.

So I'm reading about some of the new features that are coming with dismay.

One of the reasons why the chat box can no longer be disabled in the new version of Gmail is that it will include some new features: updates from your contacts. Yes, they are the same contacts you barely know, but these updates will help you learn more about them.

I don't really want automatic updates from my contacts. I do want information that my contacts decide they'd like to share with me, because they know me and think I will find it useful.

Are any of us suffering from a lack of information right now? I don't think so. The big challenge of all of these tools is finding the good stuff. While developers work hard to figure out ways to create intelligent filters to accomplish just that - and often do some pretty ingenious things - I can't help but think that there's already a good social network filter out there: the human brain.
Specifically, the human brains residing in the skulls of people who know us. When I get an email from my colleague Maureen that says, "I thought you'd find this interesting," I pay attention. But I realize that Maureen has probably looked at fifty other things that did not make her think, "Hey, I should pass that on to John."

If I had a lot of time and not enough to do, I probably would enjoy sorting through those. I don't have that, and I doubt you do either.

Now, tools for sharing are great; the shared feeds in Google's newsreader are a great example. Those are resource that are out there for us to choose to go look at.

But I'm not thrilled at the idea of them appearing in my beloved simple Gmail interface. When I'm there, I'm there to accomplish a specific task, and I want to be left alone.

It seems that the trend in social networking is not to create tools to allow selective information sharing, but to enable to broadcast all kinds of information to their contacts - sometimes automatically. I think that degrades the quality of information one gets through networks. (Facebook's Beacon is a great and disastrous example of this.)

Am I hopelessly over 40 about this?

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