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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Social Network Emails = Spam?

Is anyone else starting to think of all the different social network friends invites – and the social networks’ many other reminders & messages – as spam?

Don’t get me wrong, I love to meet new people, and I publish my email address on practically all pages to get easily contacted (and look for email addresses on other sites to contact people, as opposed to, say, look for their social network user name). It’s only that these invites don’t equal meeting new people – rather, they add an extra work load to your day which is more about having to manage a dozen social network sites. Some of them even succeed in making communication with friends, strangers and colleagues harder, because they will hide a sender’s email address until you sign-up and possibly pay; if you get contacted through one of those networks, you’ll find yourself forced through a new tool to replicate what your email client, which you know in and out, already allowed you to do fine. Indeed it might be sufficient for many of us – certainly the case with me – if that email client just has a good contacts manager where you can privately enter details for each contact, or (if you want to) your relationship with that person.

I already unsubscribed from practically all social network sites a while ago (all the ones that kept sending emails, anyway). Including, which was the only one I really used. The thing is, this social network site didn’t end up managing my friends network. I wasn’t even sure just what it ended up managing – my existing friends (e.g. people I met in real life, or which I have established contact through email)? My prospective friends? Anyone, because I’m trying to get as many contacts as possible in this network? People I would like to meet one day? People I have met, but didn’t get the chance to talk to? My colleagues and ex-colleagues? Or just the colleagues I’m friends with? And what if the person sending you an invite, or the person who receives your invite, has a different answer to this question than you do, resulting in a faux pas which by and large could have been avoided if only you two weren’t registered with this social network?

(Just imagine social etiquette in real world would manifest itself like this – at some party, a stranger walks up to you, gives you his hand for shaking, and then opens the conversation by saying “Hi, my name is Joe, do you want to be my friend, yes or no?” Of course, your instinct would be to tell Joe that it’s nice to meet him, but that you’d rather have an actual conversation before, if ever, having to agree on some formal, and rather binary, categorization of the social relationship you two are in... and that, in fact, there’s nothing wrong with a conversation between two people who haven’t formally agreed on their relationship status at all.)

But whether or not you find use in these systems and decide to work with them is a different issue, as long as it actually remains your decision to make. And that’s where the problem starts. Because as it is today, you can kill your accounts with these sites, but their invite mails or “I’m updating my address book, please confirm your address” reminders won’t stop coming in when you do (at least not with all of these sites). They just go on, for some of us, many times a day; and they often make it to the inbox instead of the spam folder. Social networks, of course, have a commercial interest in keeping this stream of pings alive, because it may bring new users to their system, which in turn may yield more users clicking on ads, or more users who pay for a premium account. Your micro-attention is wasted on them, but the sum of attention of everyone results in revenue; just like with normal bulk mail, it’s good enough for the social networks to get 1 in 1000 hooked up. They don’t worry about 999 unanswered mails, because sending emails doesn’t have any real cost attached to it.

Perhaps “spam” is whatever people flag as such in self-learning email clients like Gmail. And that, perhaps, means it’s only a matter of time before social network emails skip the inbox altogether – because the annoyance they bring to some started to outweigh the use they bring to others (and I’m sure these mails are useful to some, especially those of you who registered for the system).

But these social networks operate in the open, and that means they should comply with netiquette. They could operate site-internal message centers, as that would ensure we’d only see these messages when we open the site (some social networks do). And isn’t there a policy in email world that systems shouldn’t send automated or semi-automated emails without the recipient opting in? Or if they do, then at least they shouldn’t do it twice if they don’t hear back from the recipient in some sort of confirming manner? Meaning that if LinkedIn, Xing, Orkut, Facebook, Friendster and all others sent you an email once, and you didn’t reply, they shouldn’t contact you again until you register with them or opt-in in some other way?


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