Google's 'Social' Gmail: Could It Really Work?

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Google Social Gmail
Gmail, meet Twitter.

Google is preparing to unveil a new social networking component for its Gmail Web service, according to reports published Monday. The service, The Wall Street Journal says, would add tweet-like status updates into the Gmail interface. It could be announced as early as this week.

As generally happens anytime we get a glimpse at a new tech product, people are already rushing to label the social Gmail concept as a "Twitter-killer." (Following that same logic, by the way, I'm pretty sure the Nexus One killed the Droid, which killed the iPhone, which killed the Nintendo DS, and so on. For all this technology-killing going on, there sure seem to be an awful lot of things still out there.)

Homicidal digressions aside, could a social Gmail really work? Ultimately, it all depends upon the connections.

Gmail Gets Social

First, here's what we unofficially know so far about Google's potential social Gmail setup (Google's spokespeople have yet to comment on the reports):

• Gmail will supposedly gain a stream of "media and status updates" within its Web-based interface.

• Users would be encouraged to use the stream to "post and view messages about their day-to-day activities."

• Users would see information only from people with whom they choose to connect.

• The updates could eventually include info shared from YouTube and Picasa as well.

The reports compare the social networking concept to the status update system already present in Gmail's chat feature. As with most instant messaging platforms, the Gmail chat feature allows you to set a status that users on your friend list can see. The new social Gmail platform, The Wall Street Journal reports, will "aggregate updates from more friends" into a single stream. It's not clear if those updates would be tied directly to the Gmail chat statuses or whether they'd be something completely separate.

Gmail and Social Connections

When considering any kind of social Gmail system, I think the real question is whether the service will attempt to create something new or to centralize something old. In this case, the latter may be preferable. YouTube and Picasa integration, after all, are fine -- but would that be enough to convince you to get on-board? We're already facing a serious bout of social network overkill; there are simply far too many different sites to keep up with as it is, and the last thing we need is one more destination to frequent.

How a Gmail social service could fill a relevant void would be by creating a convenient way to manage the existing noise. Sure, you've got options like TweetDeck and, but let's be honest: Outside of us techies, far more people are familiar with Google and Gmail than with these kinds of niche-oriented offerings.

A clean and simple service that'd integrate updates from Facebook, Twitter, and other social services into Gmail could gain some solid traction (and might actually be rather handy, too). If it could somehow leverage Gmail's spam-filtering capabilities to cut through Twitter's junk -- er, sorry, "social media expertise" -- hey, that'd be icing on the cake.

Google's Social Moves

Realistically, any kind of cross-platform integration may be a long shot. Google has been slowly but steadily building its own army of social services over the past months. The company even hired a handful of social media veterans earlier this year, one of whom told CNET the social media realm was set to be one of Google's "big focuses for 2010." The goal, he said: getting there "faster and better."

So will Google's alleged Gmail social service be another Orkut, or will it give us something we'll actually use? Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets. Google has a media event scheduled for Tuesday, so odds are, we'll learn the answer very soon.

JR Raphael is a PCWorld contributing editor and the co-founder of eSarcasm. He's on both Twitter and Facebook; come say hello.

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