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Facebook Unveils “Modern Messaging System”

DBS Interactive

“Is E-mail dead?”  Recently the topic of debate among members of the press, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, thinks that E-mail isn’t necessarily dead, but is simply not the way of the future.

This conclusion is the inspiration behind Facebook’s “modern messaging system,” Facebook Messages, which was announced earlier this week at a conference in San Francisco.

The new system, which launched Monday for a select number of reporters, techies, and industry insiders, will be rolled out to the public on an invitation basis over the next few months.  Those who opt-in to Facebook Messages will receive a Facebook email address, which is conveniently your

Over the past few years, the Facebook network has expanded to extraordinary size.  With approximately 500 million Facebook users worldwide, the Facebook network is the largest of its kind.  To put the Facebook network in relative terms, competing communication services such as Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo are dwarfed with 171 million, 363 million, and 303 million users respectively.

The revelation that sparked the development of this new communication service was growth in private communication within Facebook.  Growing at an exponentially higher rate than their user base, Facebook claims that nearly 4 billion private, 1 to 1, messages are sent every day.  While Facebook was originally created as a way to simplify public communication between your network of friends, this new discovery informed Facebook developers that users yearned for private, intimate conversations to the same degree, if not to a greater extent than public communication.

Facebook Messages is based on 3 major features:

Diagram of Faceboook messaging features

1. Seamless messaging across technology

One of the major problems with modern communication products is the apparent lack of integration between them.  On a daily basis, individuals communicate through a multitude of different services such as Facebook, IM, E-mail, and SMS text messages.  Each product requires its own unique set of conditions to communicate.  Messages sent to my E-mail address, may not be read until I find time to check my inbox.  IMs can’t be sent to any of my friends without first logging in to my iChat or AOL account.

The newly announced, Facebook Messages, solves this problem by providing seamless integration across all products.  I can message a friend on Facebook chat, leave the house to run some errands, and continue the conversation in-transit (obviously not while driving) via SMS.  Likewise, I could be communicating with someone through my Facebook chat, with a person who doesn’t even have a Facebook account, via their E-mail client.

Graphic of a chat bubble saying What Time is The Meeting

2. Conversation History

Zuckerberg argues that while technology has certainly helped us communicate more effectively with our loved ones, the conversations we have with these individuals remain fragmented.  As mentioned above, messages remain specific to the channels we use to communicate them and conversations end as soon as we stop interacting with that channel.

For example, one of my favorite bands is “Audio Slave”.  If “Audio Slave” were playing a show near me, I may use E-mail to invite my best friend.  As the concert date grows near, we may discuss travel and lodging arrangements through IM.  Finally, we may use text messages to coordinate our rendezvous point so that we can drive up to the concert together.  If on the day of the concert I forget which hotel we are staying and I don’t have access to a computer, than we may spend the bulk of the day searching for that hotel, instead of listening to the face-melting, ear-bursting guitar solos of Tom Morello.

Facebook Messages attempts to simplify this process by aggregating all this data into one easy-to-read convo screen.  In other words, every SMS, Facebook chat, IM, or E-mail you have ever exchanged with friends through Facebook, will be reflected in a single conversation, specific to that friend.


Screenshot of Social Inbox

3. Social Inbox

Finally, one of the biggest problems associated with traditional E-mail is the seemingly never ending barrage of spam.  An Industry Threats Trend Report released in January of 2010 by Commtouch reported that 183 billion spam E-mails are sent EVERY day!  As a percentage of total volume, “abusive E-mail” makes up an estimated 85% of all incoming mail.

While Facebook can do nothing to reduce the number of spam E-mails sent, Facebook Messages should reduce the number of spam E-mails you actually see by relegating all E-mail from users outside of your network of friends to an “Other” folder.  Any message from a “friend”, whether it be SMS, IM, or E-mail will be given priority and appropriately bumped to the top of your “Friends” inbox.  Additional options allow users to specify who gets priority, or who gets bounced to the “Other” folder.

These 3 features when combined, offer a very enticing product utility.  In many respects, I completely agree with Zuckerberg’s conclusions and believe that communication structured in conversations is a huge improvement on the archival ways of traditional E-mails.  Nevertheless, I suspect there are several factors that will prevent Facebook users from adopting the new Messages system as their primary communication tool.

Given Facebook’s well-established track record of circumventing privacy laws, the number one issue I foresee that will prevent people from immediately adopting the new technology is the ambiguity of how Facebook intends to use your private information.  A hypothetical situation which was addressed in the conference, but whose answer was conveniently side-stepped by Zuckerberg, dealt with the Facebook’s intended use of information relating to non-Facebook users.

For example, my granddad doesn’t have a Facebook account, but he knows how to E-mail.  If I was using Facebook to communicate with him and he was using E-mail to communicate with me, than Facebook would now has access to my granddad’s email address and the content within our messages.

And although they clearly stated that the content within your personal conversations will not be used to customize your experience with their ad network, there is nothing that is preventing them from covertly changing their privacy policy in the future (Well, with of course the exception of Federal privacy laws, but that’s never stopped them before).

Another issue, which I foresee hindering the acceptance of their new product is the difficulty in bypassing corporate firewalls.  Facebook happens to be one of the websites most often blocked by corporate firewalls.  Although personal communication is something that is frowned upon in a corporate environment, the fact is that millions of people use time at work to communicate with friends every day.  Adopting the email address as your primary email could certainly cause problems in this area.

Lastly, there are some features specific to G-mail that I believe still give E-mail a leg up over Facebook Messages.  Facebook did not directly address the amount of storage space each inbox will offer, but they did state “If you use it, how it was intended to be used, you shouldn’t have a problem.”  While that probably is the case, I gain comfort from knowing I have 7 GB of storage space with my G-mail account.  I also like the fact that G-mail supports lightning fast searches, something which may be difficult to use if all communication is in one conversation.

Tell us what you think!  Are the benefits of Facebook Messages great enough to outweigh the potential privacy violations?