This has several features. First, the e-mail service is made more personal because it displays messages more prominently from people who are more important to you. Yahoo is testing a method that can automatically determine the strength of your relationship to someone by how often you exchange e-mail and instant messages with him or her.
“The inbox you have today is based on what people send you, not what you want to see,” Mr. Garlinghouse said. “We can say, here are the messages from the people you care about most.
Yahoo Mail will also be extended to display other information about your friends as well. This can be a link to a profile page, and also what Yahoo calls “vitality” –- updated information much like the news feed on Facebook. There could also be simple features that are common on social networks, like displaying a list of friends whose birthdays are coming up.
“The exciting part is that a lot of this information already exists on our network, but it’s dormant,” Mr. Garlinghouse said.
What Yahoo is missing in this vision is a personal profile, where users express their interests and personality to others. Yahoo, of course, has had many different takes on this over the years: its member directory, Geocities, Yahoo 360. It recently started Yahoo Mash. But none of these is quite right, Mr. Garlinghouse said. Mash is simply an experiment, not a product being readied for mass promotion.
There will be some sort of profile system attached to Inbox 2.0, he said. For people who use a lot of Yahoo services, this profile could be quite rich even at the beginning, as it can draw on activity on Yahoo Music, Yahoo Shopping and so on.
“If I get an e-mail from Saul Hansell, I should be able to click on his name and see his profile,” Mr. Garlinghouse said. “The profile page is where you can expose what you want people to know about you.
In this vision, people have two pages: a profile they show to others and a personal page on which they see information from their friends as well as anything else they want, like weather or headlines. That’s different from MySpace, which combines all this into one page.
Already My Yahoo and iGoogle are increasingly collections of widgets that hold content and applications from multiple sources, some of them already social, like e-mail and feeds from social sites like Flickr. But much more is coming.
This approach has a lot of potential and a few pitfalls. To start with, everyone who joins Facebook understands that what they do on the site is about sharing information with friends and sometimes strangers. People who use Yahoo Mail, or just exchange messages with someone using a Yahoo Mail account, have no such expectations. So the company will have to be very careful in how it explains what it is doing and ask for permission in the right places.
“This isn’t a separate product,” Mr. Garlinghouse said. “This is an integration that has to be seamless to the user.”
What’s more, running social networks is like starting nightclubs. You need music and beer, of course, and some hard-to describe magic that draws people to the club. Yahoo and Google are so big that the most they could aspire to would be to create the online equivalent of a crowded bar at a train station, rather than a club for a particular sort of person.
But since Yahoo and Google already have hundreds of millions of people visiting each month, it may well be that they can get a fair number to stop and chat.
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