Before you joined your first “social network,” you were already using a tried-and-true social network that all your friends had joined, that never tweaked your privacy settings without asking, and that worked incredibly well. It was called email. In recent years, modern email clients like Gmail have turned your email account into a more powerful social tool than ever, capable of nearly anything you can do on Facebook—and it protects your privacy while you’re at it. Here’s how to turn your Gmail inbox into the most powerful, private social network you’ve ever used.
Facebook has problems. Don’t remember them? Here are a few favorites:
Lots of people are on Facebook, but everyone has an email address—hell, you need an email account to sign up for Facebook. With a little setup, you can turn your email account into the best, most private and worry-free social network you’ve ever used… Facebook be damned.
Your everyday run-of-the-mill Gmail account has social features that Facebook couldn’t dream of. Here are a few:
We all know how to manage our email accounts. We all have our inboxes on our phones and on our computers, we all have a favorite app we use to get our email, and we all know how to handle our email. The only catch is that email isn’t inherently public—but that’s actually a good thing, because it lets us share what we want to share only to the people we want to see it, and no more. That makes email social and private: a pretty killer combination if you ask me.
Now that you’ve seen some of the not-so-hidden social features in your inbox, let’s put that power to good use. Most of them are a snap to set up, and once they’re configured you can start making email personal again, and look forward to new messages from friends instead of another bulk newsletter or daily deal email. Here’s how:
Create Contact Groups to Easily “Post” to Friends, Family, and Others: Contact groups can be used to corral your conversations and shares into communities that actually care about them, instead of broadcasting everything to the world. Just go to Google Contacts and select “New Group.” Give your group a name, and then add the email addresses you want in your group. Gmail will autocomplete them as you type. Consider setting up groups for your job, for family, friends, a school project, and any other subset of people you want to communicate with regularly. Plus, now that contacts are supported in the Gmail search bar, emailing, calling, and IMing is even easier than before.
Organize and Sort Your Groups with Filters and Labels: Now that you have some contact groups defined, it’s time to start setting up labels and filters so your “social mail” is organized for easy reading. Here’s a great guide to making filters and labels that stand out. Google doesn’t give us a way to filter by contact group, but this workaroundlets you create filters for entire groups so they’re neatly labeled, and set to either go right to the label and keep your inbox clean, or labeled and in your inbox at the same time.
Use Priority Inbox as an Organized News Feed: The reason filters and labels are so important is so you don’t get overwhelmed by your sudden influx of social email. No one likes a cluttered inbox, and in addition to filters, Google’s Priority Inbox adds another element of automatic organization to your email account. It may take some training, but it’s a powerful tool to make sure the important stuff bubbles up to the top, and the rest is organized and filed so you can see it when you choose.
Turn On Threaded Conversations to Keep Up Easily: If you have conversation threading turned off, now’s a good time to turn it back on. Head to Gmail settings and set “Conversation Mode” to on. When you sharing with your contact groups, conversation view will keep all of their responses in one place, organized neatly so you can follow the conversation. Compared to Facebook’s one-layer comment threads, threaded conversations are heaven-sent. You can continue conversations as long as you like, and you’ll never lose track of who replied to what.
Mute Conversations To Keep Your “News Feed” Tidy: If those conversation threads get into the weeds, or you lose interest, you can always mute the conversation. You still get the mail, and you can always come back to it easily (unlike Facebook’s take on the same feature). Best of all, no one knows you muted the conversation, so you don’t have to explain yourself to someone who noticed you removed yourself from their event invitation or comment thread.
Reach Out to Friends and Family with Phone Calls and Video Chats: When Google+ launched, it launched with Hangouts, a feature we all really love. Facebook quickly partnered with Skype to deliver the same feature. Both of those features are already in your Gmail inbox. Voice and video calling have been in Gmail for ages, and it works really well. If your friends are also Gmail users, you can add them to chat,
IM them anytime from inside your inbox (just like Facebook chat!) or your preferred IM client, and even fire up a video call with them with a couple of clicks. Sure, you can do the same in Facebook, but it’s easier—and less intrusive—in Gmail.
Turn On Maps, Flickr, Picasa, and Docs Previews in Labs for Context: Gmail Labs features a number of in-email previews similar to Facebook’s link previews, so if a friend pastes a YouTube video, for example, you can watch it directly from your inbox. To turn them on, head into Gmail Labs, turn on the link previews for Flickr, Picasa, Docs, Maps, and Yelp previews, and click Save Changes. Another lab, Message Sneak Peek, lets you right-click a new message in your inbox to preview it before opening it, and the Google Voice player embeds new voicemail right in the notification email you get after someone calls. All of these make it easier to work in your inbox without having to jump out of it to go somewhere else.
Use Third-Party Apps to Supercharge Your “Social Inbox”: Gmail has a ton of social features built into it already, but what’s really awesome about Gmail is that it’s so popular that there are other apps to help you optimize it. Here are a few:
There are more tools available for Gmail that extend its social features, and these are just the tip of the iceberg. The point of all of them are that they give you control over who you share with, what they see, how your conversations and shares are organized, and how you read your updates from friends. It’s not a perfect solution, and we’ll all probably continue to use Facebook, but your inbox is already the most powerful social tool you use, and the one that most protects your privacy. Besides, who wouldn’t like more email—-actual meaningful, person-to-person email these days?