Back in 1999 when I entered college, I gradually gave up my @AOL.com address in lieu of my shiny new @cornell.edu address – the main reason was spam – after several years of active use, e-mail boxes become unwieldy and full of spam. When I was an 11th grader, it surely made sense for me to sign up for SAT prep, University Admissions, Financial Aid, and high school sports mailing lists, but nearly all that content, 18 months later was useless to me, but still showing up each day. Sure, I could remove myself from each list and/or flag it all as spam, but it was an annoying ongoing task, worthy of a complete overhaul. The same pattern has gone on for the last 12+ years - corporate, educational, and personal e-mail start out clean, but ultimately become havens for “contextual spam”, e.g. content that I willfully signed up for in the past, which is now irrelevant to my daily life.

I’m currently sitting in sunny Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco, enjoying a much-needed vacation with my wife’s immediate family. When we got here, I got a SIM card nearby, and opted for the e-mail package, so as to be able to see what was coming through my inbox and be available to respond if need be at a few points during the day. As you can probably guess from the location, high speed internet access providers have not focused too heavily on the Canary Islands, and its offered me a 2 week period off the grid for the most part (in fact, just to send this post, i am sitting in the Convention Center, where I have a third of a bar of wifi connection).

Regardless, each day, I get about 50-60 e-mails, despite my “Out of Office” note, with nearly 80% coming from mailing lists, applications and related spots which are no longer relevant to my life – my G-Mail still seems to get notes from MBA admissions offices about deadlines and exciting happenings, despite having been through b-school in 2008. While I’ve flagged the content a dozen times or so in G-Mail, its still coming through.

My corporate e-mail at StockTwits, now with almost 2 years under my belt, is also chock full of spam, starting with LinkedIN group e-mails coming daily or weekly, Twitter updates, and a variety of newsletters that are often just irrelevant to my day to day. Talking to my colleagues (and family members), I see this as a recurring problem.

The Death of E-mail

I cannot remember the last time I anticipated anything coming through the USPS -Sad to say, but with electronic billing and magazines on my iPad, I just don’t need it anymore…

But don’t tell LL Bean and Bloomingdales. A few errant holiday and wedding gifts over the last 2 years have led to at least 6 catalogs hitting my mailbox each month, not to mention all the affiliate companies that are sending me ‘related spam’. Finally, as if the credit crisis had not happened, it seems like my wife and I are eligible for millions of dollars in new credit lines through Capital ONE and Discover, despite never having a relationship with either firm at our current address (and living outside the US for a few years prior to that).

E-mail has supposedly killed snail mail, but it suffers from the same underlying mismanagement – a physical address or e-mail address is just a small data point in a large dataset that is sold for fractions of a cent per name in our world to advertisers. E-mail and Direct Mail Marketing are still a phenomenally large business, profitable even when only a small fraction of a percent or recipients act on the message. Hence, spam and the increasing irrelevance of e-mail in the communications suite…

Social Media’s Problem

Which brings us to social media… Facebook is a site I can no longer use actively – why? Because the folks I knew and cared about in 2004 are not the same as the people I care about today.

  • In 2004, I was in my first job in New York, single, and hanging out with Management Consultants, Bankers, and Cornellians (to be fair, most of whom were Management Consultants or Bankers)
  • In 2007 I went to INSEAD for business school. All of a sudden I added another 500+ friends from a variety of countries who were with me in Singapore and France for 10 months.
  • In 2008, I moved to Tel Aviv and began befriending folks in the startup scene across Israel and Europe
  • Today, I work in the New York startup scene, and have added friends here as well

As you can imagine, I’ve got almost 8 years of relationships from very different circles that are all being updated in my Facebook interface. It’s rare to not get a facebook message from a friend from 5-6 years ago, about something they’re doing that is now far away from my life – yes, the voyeur effect allows me to peer in and see what they’re up to and reconnect with a ‘like’, but most of the time I’m just frustrated to be seeing it at all.

And its not all that different on the other big networks – When I first used Twitter in 2009, I was a VC in Israel, and built several lists of VCs and Startup founders that I followed in Tweetdeck. Today, half the young VCs are in startups across Europe and several of the founders are working for larger companies (as part of acquisitions) – sure their content is still good, but its less relevant to my day to day.

LinkedIN too has big problems with this, particularly around groups – I love groups as it adds context to your profile and adds affiliations that were not formalized several years ago (they are trying to adjust this through relationships with specific credential services, and through new fields like ‘skills’). Regardless, I don’t want to drop off the VC lists, as I still do work with Social Leverage on investments, but I also don’t want to get bombarded with spam conversation. I don’t want to drop a name off the rolodex from college, but I do want e-mails from my classmates in 2002 to be prioritized lower than correspondence from newer relationships.

But Twitter and LinkedIN, like Facebook, do not solve the ‘contextual spam’ issue for me by organizing the people I follow (and my followers) into buckets and/or recommending I unfollow people – if they did that, they’d have less ‘contextual spam’ but their users and brands would have fewer followers and less reach.

Social Media 2.0

What is happening across the board as a result of all this information being shared across e-mail, RSS, and social media, is a new need for curation tools that contextualize the conversations you’ve opted in to. What will come next is a series of tools that contextualize the conversations you ‘ought to be in’, based on more intelligent usage of your social graph.

  • You may have been on JDate 4 years ago, but are now married with kids, you probably don’t want to be hit up with news and information about dating tips and wedding venues – despite what you may have opted into 4 years ago.
  • You may have been a huge fan of an indie band 4 years ago, but clearly have distaste for their new stuff, now that they went mainstream.
  • You might have loved penny stocks 3 years ago, but now care about your investment dollar (and are investing in the StockTwits50 exclusively).

The tools and the networks we use, particularly as they become more verticalized (and thus deeper), will need to be smart enough to first and foremost know who you were, know who you are today, and know who you are likely to be in the future.

At StockTwits, we have always taken the philosophy that the context of a message at its given point in time is essential, but not the ongoing ‘zombie following’ mentality of Twitter or Facebook – we want our users to actively follow and unfollow tickers and people, as their preferences change and their needs change.

For companies and institutions who use StockTwits to communicate their message to the investor community, we emphasize engagement statistics and monitoring efforts, focused more on context at individual points in time, rather than aggregated follower statistics – we believe that its more important to know your ‘true reach’, namely how many people viewed and engaged with your content or ticker at a given time, rather than how many people clicked the follow button over the lifetime of the platform.

Clearly there’s room for improvement in enhancing the value of our communications tools, and delighting the user.