Is Gmail Google’s Real Social Network?

By: Chris Crum - April 7, 2009

The Past

Gmail Invite Google’s email service Gmail was launched to the public five years ago this week. Back then, the service turned the web email industry on its ear by offering an entire gigabyte of storage to users who were lucky enough to receive an invite. Small potatoes now, but that was a nice chunk of storage from an email service back then.

For some of us, it was also a chance to get a really good address with our real names in them. I chose a simple first name/last name approach. It had a nice ring to it after previous addresses with other services that I had to explain to people who still found them hard to remember. All of the good ones had already been taken at that point on all the other big-name services.

The Present

Gmail in BetaGmail has grown by leaps and bounds since that time, and has gone through a ton of changes, and somehow still sits in beta. Who knows if that will ever change? I read an Ars Technica interview with Gmail’s product manager Todd Jackson the other day in which he discussed the reason behind the beta label.

"We have very, very high standards for the product," Jaskson said. "as we do for all Google products. But we are not ready to come out of beta yet. There are a few things that we’re working on, and once we meet a couple more of those criteria, we would love to come out of beta."

AT: Jackson said it is obviously stable enough for everyone to use—even stable enough for the business and Enterprise markets that Google is chasing with Google Apps. But the decision to drop Gmail’s beta badge hinges on a few internal criteria (or, perhaps more accurately, feature requirements) that his team feels are still lacking.

He goes on to note that some requirements like a mobile site, POP, and IMAP services have already been checked off. But does anyone really care if Gmail’s still in Beta? Many users have been happily using it for years and have no intention of leaving it behind despite an outage issue here and there. Even though it gets a whole lot of attention when it does happen, it really doesn’t happen very often.

Gmail is constantly adding new labs, making the service more customizable and useful in many respects. They are referred to as experiments, but they might as well be considered user preferences. I can’t recall ever having been affected by one of these labs not working properly. I’m sure it’s happened, but it’s not an issue that is exactly plaguing the service.

The Future

Google says it expects the changes over the next five years to be even more radical than over the past five. It’s hard to tell just what will be in store. Google has been pretty tight-lipped about future plans for the service.

Hitwise recently reported that Gmail visits had surpassed visits to YouTube. That’s pretty significant (especially since YouTube is the 2nd biggest search engine). They say that social networks are eclipsing email in popularity, and Google hasn’t exactly been known for their social media attempts. I have a theory though that Gmail has kind of been Google’s social network all along.  Granted, it’s a private social network, but with it, you can:

– send messages to friends

– keep conversations with multiple friends together

– embed videos/rich media in emails/chat messages

– send messages to people beyond the Gmail wall

– use search operators to bring up all photos /other media from any past messages

– Account holders have profile pages with their picture

– Creating a Google account essentially gives you an account to a much broader range of products in Google itself that allow for sharing things with friends (such as Docs, Reader, and Bookmarks)

The Gmail account holder has access to a lot of social elements, yet it is not really considered a social network. It only makes sense that upcoming changes would highlight and expand upon such elements. And what if Google bought Twitter like so many have predicted?

No, Gmail’s not exactly like Facebook. But Facebook’s not exactly like MySpace, and Twitter’s not exactly like Digg, and so on. Whether you agree with me or not, Gmail is here to stay, and I can’t see a scenario that doesn’t involve getting more social when every other property on the web seems to be doing just that. Luckily for Gmail (like email in general), it’s been social since it’s inception. Imagine what it could be with a few design changes.

What do you think about Gmail after five years? Tell us.

How about as a social network? Your thoughts…

Chris Crum

About the Author

Chris CrumChris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.

View all posts by Chris Crum
  • DanS

    Friggin awesome – that’s what I think of Gmail!

  • Michal Stefan

    I do totally agree with Chris that GMail is a fantastic thing and it may become the future central Hub for all communication, thus being the most used “social network”.

    Good products with the largest user base have been and will become dominant, and as people would need to engage in many different products, there will inevitably be a need to centralise these on the same platform, which Google certainly has. I do think this will be a central social network in 5 years time.

  • Linda

    I’ve had GMail for awhile now. I like how it has evolved into a more user friendly program.
    I like how picture attachments are visible right in the message with the option to view all images in a new window at larger size.
    I especially like the fact that we can now create folders (labels) that we can actually move messages into. My inbox was pretty full of messages and it was hard to find messages I wanted saved with the “tags” option. I like folders better. :-)
    But the Best Part is all that room! and its FREE!

  • JR Maxwell

    I’ve been using G-Mail for about 5 years now. Got my first invite from Chris Prillo of Lockergnome fame. It had been running for maybe a few weeks or a couple of months even.
    I can count on one hand the number of times G-mail failed to send a message, ( most of the time its my fault). It has never crashed on me and seems to collect every mail sent to me. I also use Yahoo but not with the same results.
    G-mail for me is the best choice, but I will maintain my other mails just in case something happens. I would like to see the way addresses are entered in changed to something more simple and fast. At least for me the way its done now is slow.
    Thanks G-Mail. JR

  • Hilda

    I signed up for gmail but hardly go thre.. I find it a bit confusing.. it’s not well structured. It is probably because I’m the older generation.. ? Although I have not been in GMail for ages as I wrote before, I have to look at their structure again. But that was the reason in the first place not to use it.

    I like the feature where gmail can send my email from gmail to my outlook express which I find very easy to manage. :)

  • Darleen March

    Gosh, I think that would be a great idea. I’m members of other networks, but it means logging in here, checking that, entering, etc. Chores, chores and more chores. I’ve yet to try gmail’s e-mail video, but plan too soon. Adding the networking, means one-stop shopping. A businesswoman on the go, would sure enjoy the multi-tasking under one roof! Thanks – thinking it is a GRAND idea!

    • Chris Lang

      And it is available on the go.

      Unlike Facebook I do not get 50 stupid invites to BFF apps and Vampire game invites. Another 50 group invites that I have to delete.

      I get contact management for a commercial social network and it ties my blog in as the very center of the show with Google Reader.

      Embrace it now, or kick yourself later.

  • Eric

    One thing more that I have noticed is that quite a few products of Google has remained Beta for years like Orkut. So, in my personal opinion Gmail is no different.

    I don’t think it will be a successful social network of Google.

    • Chris Lang

      I was able to generate 4000 NEW views to my YouTube channel this week alone using what I know about Google social networking.

      I added 100 new subscribers to my YouTube Channel.

      I added 400 new contacts to my mailing list.

      I SOLD product. Bottom line I made sales using this.

      This in not about Gmail, this is about Google daisy chaining every Google property into one huge social network.

      It is already successful for those of us who know how to use it.

      Early adopters of this will be huge. Who are the most powerful users of these features? Scoble and Brogan. And of course Chris Lang….

  • Guest

    I would like to be able to read more of the subject line…it gets cut off. Also when looking at an email (the body), and click on show details, you can’s see the subject line. That is frustrating. Also it would be nice to see the subject line on replies (when you are in the actual email).

    Other than that, I like it!

  • jjray

    I think voice and video conversation is where google is going with gmail. They already have these features but no displayed prominently in the gmail interface. It’s akin to the way AOL is/was setup years ago (and facebook copied). Once logged in, you see all your buddies that are logged in and can invite them to chat. You can invite multiple people into a private room to chat together. Take that simple concept and move it over to voice and video. Conference sessions are not just for business.

    • Chris Lang

      You are right on here.

      How do you increase the networking possibilities here?

      By friending like visitors to a blog thru Google Friend Connect. When they friend you back both gmails are added to Gmail contacts.

  • Hsufeng Ko

    My favorite features of GMail is its capability of collapsing all emails of the same topic/thread on one screen so it is super clear to see through all the conversations on the same topic. Without this, it would be almost impossible to navigate in my inbox filled with all work-related emails on different topics. Thank you Google!

    • Terri

      I’m very disappointed in gmail, but have no choice in using it since my internet provider changed over to it as their webmail source. I can’t use outlook express for my business email, because we need to be able to see emails from different computers at different times. I wish google would create an option of whether or not to use the collapsed email threads. With our internet orders from the website, we need to be able to see every order individually and put them in different folders, not all together. Orders get lost in the threads. It’s too time consuming and down right aggravating to have to hunt them down. I can’t believe google didn’t think of this as being a problem to some. I would think most online businesses with orders would feel the same as me. I know I could start using yahoo or hotmail, but that seems unprofessional to me as a business email address, and I shouldn’t have to resort to that. Google, please fix this soon!!!

  • Guest

    Of course it’s their social network. The entire point of the invite process was to allow Google to build a social map of the internet, tied directly to everyone’s search habits. Not only can they sell a database of your personal interests, they can also sell a list of your friends and their personal interests, helping to better understand the connections between people and maximise advertising revenue by determining what chance there is of people doing their own free advertising of a product or service to their friends. The entire thing is unspeakably evil, like most things Google has done.

    • Guest

      I think the guest writer (‘Of course its their social’) has well summed up why I wouldn’t want to adopt gmail as a social networking tool. Not that I entirely agree with the strength of his venom, I’m a gmail user but I’d rather go elsewhere for networking.

      Disgruntled of Broughton (just kidding)

  • Chris Lang

    You got the right headline, you just did not get the rest.

    You should have interviewed me for this article, let’s see if I can bring you up to speed….

    There are five major pieces to Google’s social features. GFC on blogs, Google Reader, Gmail, Google profiles and Your shared items.

    You join a blog thru the Google Friend Connect widget.

    When you do this the RSS feed should be added to Google Reader. It definitely is on Blogger blogs.

    Then you can add other members as friends by clicking their avatar as they can you.

    When you are friended back, you both appear in Gmail contacts and Gchat if you wish. Real email addresses guys.

    Your Google Reader can display their shared items and you will show in theirs.

    Shared items are hard coded a tags and fully followed.

    When others share your RSS feed from Google Reader you get fully followed links on Google servers. This is Google social bookmarking.

    So what will Google Friend connect do for you?

    I tripled my RSS subscribers in a week, made 200 new contacts that I now have in my Gmail contacts, not some closed loop dependent on Facebook’s whims.

    I have those same friends sharing my best articles in their Google Readers and I share theirs. All the while we all are creating backlinks to our own articles as well right in Google.

    I can email them, chat right from Gchat and get to know what would otherwise be nameless, faceless, social contacts all spamming each other for a few visitors.

    Want more, check my site, I will show you how to set this all up.

  • Guest

    In my opinion they should close gmail.
    Since Gmail was opened to everybody and hotmail accounts began being watched more closely, spammers, phishers and the like turned to gmail. Everyday I must spend half and hour sending header info and email body text to the abuse department.
    There is no way to get rid of these people: once you’ve complained and the account closed, they are back with another and another and another gmail account. Very social indeed

  • Guest

    In my opinion ALL social networks make thesame mistake. The province of the person enterring a new account must agree with his IP address. Thanks to this mistake, scammers crawl the social networks everywhere.

  • Missy

    Love them all…..

    My only wish would be if Google would add a data base.

  • Dave Aune

    My favorite is the spam filter. It is the best I’ve seen. I don’t lose good mail and I don’t get the junk very often.

  • Thunder

    I do NOT want my life complicated by more and more INTERCONNECTIVITY. I want email to be as private as possible. I want to check my mail without notifying the world that I am there performing this simple function.

    I got a gmail account a few years ago because my hotmail and yahoo accounts were loaded with spam. gmail has a very good spam filter and I appreciate it. A few spams do get through from time to time, but, all in all, hooray for gmail.

    I do NOT have the time, literally, to follow up on everyone who wants to be my “friend”. Social media is driven by marketers who simply want to find a way to contact us for anything and everything. I have things I want to market as well, but I appreciate a relatively high wall around the process of checking my email and maybe a little bit of chatting with a friend or business associate.

    I don’t want anything else from the experience. NOTHING. That is the VALUE of gmail to me.

  • Marsha

    I forget where I read this, but Google is also using the Google Reader to quantify site popularity.

    They’re measuring subscription and click through rates.

    So, in terms of Social Networking, they’ve found a way around the site based models and are looking at sites found in emails and sites that are being read. They’re using two apps that already exist in their arnsenal of products.

    I’m not sure that the “big brother” approach to the web makes me happy.

    Isn’t it complicated enough being a webmaster?

  • Saurabh

    I like the simple interface of Gmail but on other hand I hate cleaning up long list of spam everyday.
    While Hotmail rejects most of spam, Gmail shows them in my inbox.

    Email should be restricted to Email. Google should seprate Gmail from all other services.

    • Arthur S.

      I like the interface it’s great on Gmail.
      It has to much spam on it. They have to clean up people spamming us all the time. Spamming is the worse feature about Gmail and the
      spam filters are terrible. I have use them and it does nothing to get rid of spam.
      One of my gmail accounts I get over hundreds of spam a day..
      Just keep gmail separate from any other thing, no social networking or anything else.
      Privacy is important to everyone. I think google is infringing on our privacy everday.

  • Social Network Million

    With the constant increasing of web services provided by Google that link with the Gmail account, Google definitely is one of the top player in Social Network arena

  • sam

    i like google and gmail, it brings a lot of benefit to me..

  • Ben


    Reading all the comments, I’d like to ad my 2 cents worth:
    – I use a few different gmail addresses and I find the Spam filter to be excellent
    – I like the social applications they have added, but to be honest I agree with Thunder, when I am checking my emails I don’t want to be disturbed by all those additional features. So I have turned them all off.

    But I am surprised that Google is not pushing Orkurt harder to face Facebook…

  • Social Media optimizations

    my gmail account 3 years old, but i dont know how to get traffic from gmail, since using gmail signature link with my site, still getting good traffic. seems good.

  • Guest

    I’ve been using G-Mail for about 5 years now… well done, …

    Thank you all.

    Had 12 accounts before, … only 2 now with 5 years history: search able, labeled, color-coded and useful… even chat log.

    One Happy of many GigaByte Inbox :-)

    Bogdan Wrzesinski, Intelligence Inc GodSpeed Publishing

  • SEO Norfolk VA

    The best part of gmail for me (other than being free!) is the POP account that goes with it. I depend on Outlook for just about everything and if I had to remember to check my Gmail account everyday I’d probably forget to.

    • Ralph

      I love the application of using emails to send messages to family & friends and I hope it is not susceptible to viruses like hotmail is. I think google should be able to keep the viruses away. I do wish they would allow a small place to set up a web site like outlook express and Aliant has. I had a web presence with them since I’ve had a computer but the site is on www3 instead of www. like most websites are but I think there are a few in that general area. I wish google would let me use the web spider to make my site more visible. Why do we have High Speed internet. I just can’t see what good it is unless we can get providers to let us use the web presence we have on our own systems.

  • Sean

    i was lucky to get an invite at university to gmail, and use it as my mail email comms tool.
    I find that its great to have a standalone mail, for when u change host providers, or services like bt.. u still have a hub to live from.

    i think the spam filter is so good that i redirect all mails to my other gmail accounts, this is so handy against using windows type mail, that is combersom and needs a serious overhaul.

    the chat side is good, to chat to others, in pvt or in conference, it feels more secure as its embedded in a mail window, i can hide or appear yet still get thier messeges in mails to check later.

    however i do think there are some things missing or not so good:

    1.ability to float the freinds list from page and back
    2.blocking a person like msn but able to unblock just in just converts to mail.
    3.being able to have a alert thread, that allows u too see that any other gmaill email address u have has recieved mail… like a mini 5 line thread that u have added to the list.. this i have never seen, i hate to logg on n off just to check. internal website counter for ur sites traffic, with weekly and dayly stats.
    5. auto reply option.. too all, or selected, and selectable replies, while set to busy, to confirm recieved and in queue etc.
    6. advertising… NO-ONE i know even knew it had a reliable IM. i find its best, it uses way less upload download than msn/yahoo, its way more stable, especcially when i use a dongle connection, in low connection areas, msn wont even load, yet with the odd cut off, its stability is amazing.

    i would recommend gmail over anythingas far as personal or non open social feilding is concerned.. social adventure networking, no… there is no way i can see of meeting those or reaching out to those u dont know.. myspace and face book u can

    but if gmail does, it should incorporate possible searches under interest – business – hobbies options .. rather than random, also a non wanted filter… selectable and business searches within it on a seporate pane… that can intelligently search for businesses that are in your postcode area, then spans outwards like a pebble in water.. hmm.. in the ”Search Ripple” :)

    Sean melton mowbray leicestershire uk web site and web design and development for all.

  • Francis Australian SEO

    Would be awesome if they upgrade their to do list app in Gmail. We need some hardcore integration with Calendar and tasks lists to make gmail more corporate and Socialable

    • seoworkgroup

      I agree with you

  • whatmaster

    I have to admit, I love Gmail. The features I like the most is the possibility of threading conversations and the possibility of applying tags to messages.
    NIce and smart search system inside mail folders i very effective too.
    I had some less relevant problem with anti-spam, but I think they’ll going to fix the soon.
    An, yesy, quite easy attachment management.
    Avyway, Gmail is actually my main e-mail box.

  • sylvie chen

    Last year there was a big push by Google to an OpensocialAPI.
    That is where Gmail will go.
    What’s missing is an OPensocial enabled collaboration engine.
    Chat doesn’t hack it. You need multi-person video streams, white boarding, co-browser sharing, presence awareness, mobile platform compatibility and doc sharing.

    They have all these elements but some are in vertical app silos and need to move to the API.

    They should look at Collabworx out of Syracuse. It drives the DOD and other govt agency secure collaboration because it is encrypted at the audio and object level.

    Ah, something Google would not want to happen because, after all, they make their money on indexing real time content in Gmail, knowing what you send and receive. I bet they even search and index attachments where appropriate. Don’t agree? Well…

    I’ve tested this theory by sending a one line message to my self with a word doc attached that contained the words car, credit and location. The ads showed in Gmail focused on a local car dealer and bank offering car loans. Go figure….

  • Tracy

    I know that really nothing we send over the internet is completely private, but still…the Google ads that are based on the content of my emails feel Big Brotherish to me.

    I love the spam filter and the way the messages are organized, though, so I’m going to happily continue to use the account.

    • Guest

      i agree with the Bigbrotherish effect with the google ads. I have also had allot of my friends and clients warn me and tell me toquit using gmal because of this…but google is king and i will be a faithful google user for years to come!

  • Indonesia Dating

    of course, i am using gmail thus i have to

  • vincestev

    I think that Google has revolutionised working patterns. Searches, adwords, google base have all changed my view of work. Google chat is great.

    Love it.

  • heartgard for dogs

    In response to an old comment I read (someone who hates gmail collapse threads…)


    This is the best invention ever. I love that function because it make our inbox much more “cleaner” and functional –> it is much more easier to find relevant emails, and to easily go back to the original emails.

    Also, there are so many other good apps from google… google documents, which I do not to point out, is great. Its like carrying your documents with you at all time, and I love how you can share with other people as well.

    Google did a good job so far, and hopefully it is only a beginning and they will come up with more good ideas in the future

  • Srilanka hosting

    Chris, Gmail is a Social Media APP, there is no doubt, bcz, Glabs introduce lots of Applications, all API have lots of unique features.


  • Guest