Facebook started rolling out its new messaging platform at the end of 2010, adding new functionality as well as a new interface to the service. One of the most widely mentioned new functions is the option to get an ‘@facebook.com’ email address, allowing friends (and of course people who don’t know you at all) to send a message into your Facebook messages inbox via email.
Another key new function is the addition of text messaging integration – a service with a lot of potential value in developing countries without widespread usage of smart phones. The Facebook messaging facelift brings quite a few changes to the Facebook experience and has at least the potential to gradually change the way we engage with ‘messaging’ online all together.
One of the first things you notice after upgrading to the new Facebook Message platform is that different kinds of Facebook communications are now integrated, and organized by the person you had the communication with. Facebook chats, original style Facebook messages, emails and text messages (SMSs) from one friend all exist within the same thread. This has a few associated benefits: Facebook chats are now stored (just as they are in MSN or Google Talk/GChat), conversations that span multiple mediums are held together, and perhaps most refreshingly conversations with friends are separated from messages from non-friends, events and fan pages etc.
This integrated approach is also part and parcel of Facebook’s attempt to deliver a message in what it perceives to be the most efficient and successful manner. If you send a Facebook message to a friend and they are logged into Facebook chat at the time, then they will receive the message as a chat. If you are replying to a message that was sent to you as an email (to your @facebook.com email address), then your reply will be sent as an email reply. There is also a checkbox option to send a message as a text/SMS to a mobile phone (assuming that the recipient has registered their mobile number with Facebook). Regardless of how the message is delivered, the whole conversation string will be logged in your Facebook inbox. Attachments can now be added as well, to be downloaded by the recipient as with conventional email.
Over time, its certainly plausible that this kind of integrated social messaging could start to replace a significant amount of our use of other Instant Messaging (IM) services such as Google Talk or MSN, as well as our use of ‘traditional’ email for a lot of social communications. The text message component will likely diminish in usefulness as more and more people adopt smart phones, and rely less on highly overpriced SMS services.
There is virtually no chance of Facebook’s new foray into the email market replacing people’s use of their original email provider on any great scale. Admittedly this is not necessarily ‘The Bad’, since Facebook is probably not attempting to do this (at least not yet) but thinking about why can reveal some shortcomings. The first obvious issue is the domain name. Having an ‘@facebook.com’ email address clearly rules out any serious business usage of the service. Even for personal use, a lot of users will never feel comfortable having certain kinds of personal communications (banking, tax related, e-commerce etc.) routed to Facebook, especially with all the past privacy concerns.
From an interface perspective, the inbox is very rudimentary. There is a helpful search function, but none of the powerful and easily accessible filtering functionality present on all major email systems. Even filtering by date is not really possible on Facebook. The interface works well if it is intended to be the old Facebook messaging platform on steroids – not as a competitor for the majority of our communications online.
The moment you get an @facebook.com email address is the moment you can start receiving spam from people who aren’t even on Facebook. Of course spam filtering will be applied, but it does and will happen. One of the best features of the new platform – the separation of messages from friends and messages from events, non-friends etc. does help with this but it’s still not ideal. The issue of privacy is already important for many Facebook users, who naturally see the site as a private realm for them to interact with close friends and family that they have chosen. It is likely that receiving spam messages in your Facebook inbox will seem far more invasive than in your email inbox.
Facebook seems to have taken a bet (likely based on a lot of hard data) that the majority of its users will find value in an integrated social messaging centre that puts ease of use and simplicity above extensive functionality. If this is the goal then the recent interface changes can be seen as a strong step towards this. The usage rates of the new email and text message features remain to be seen – learning new email addresses for all of your friends is not going to be high on anyone’s list, and more and more mobile handsets are capable of at least rudimentary use of the Facebook mobile site, rendering text messages in the least a fairly un-useful, and at most a highly annoying addition to Facebook’s infiltration of our lives.