Mike Isaac

Recent Posts by Mike Isaac

The @facebook Email Switch: Another Nudge Toward a Facebook Communications System

For the past two years, Facebook has moved slowly but surely into new territories. The company’s expansion into email and Messages clearly showed the social giant’s lofty ambitions: To upset our existing communications systems and replace them with its own.

It has been slow going (I can’t say I’ve seen any @facebook emails in my inbox lately), and will likely take years if it even has a chance. So it makes sense, then, that Facebook would gradually prod us into using its services over time. Take, for example, a quiet weekend switch that changed the email address displayed on users’ Timeline pages from their third-party service — like Gmail or Yahoo — to their @facebook address.

Facebook couched the switch in privacy terms, coloring it as a more granular control mechanism feature. “In addition to everyone receiving an address” — an initiative Facebook took back in 2010 — “we’re also rolling out a new setting that gives people the choice to decide which addresses they want to show on their Timelines,” a Facebook spokeswoman told me. So basically, there’s another little box to check in your settings menu that lets you nix your email addresses from your profile entirely.

In characteristic Facebook fashion, the company rolled out the new feature in a somewhat suspect and ham-handed way. As the setting went live, showing your Facebook email address on your Timeline was the default, meaning it’d be up there for all to see. Of course, everyone freaked out.

Here’s the thing: In order to uproot us from our existing services — ones that we’ve used for decades — we need to actually see and be reminded of Facebook’s alternatives. So with the new visibility setting being one that’s (ironically) mostly buried within users’ privacy menu, it’s likely many won’t notice or change it. So essentially, Facebook now has millions of profiles displaying @facebook email addresses to others, increasing visibility and reminding users that these alternatives still exist. It’s probably a privacy hit that Facebook can take in the short run while benefitting in the long term.

And there’s another way this could play out: We keep our primary, personal addresses hidden, only doling them out to those we deem worthy. But we use our Facebook email as our public-facing address, the version of our contact information that we’re more willing to give out. It’s something like the difference between a personal and a work email address.

Whatever happens, the obvious end game is aimed at increasing stickiness, bolstering activity within the Facebook ecosystem without needing to ever leave it. But if Facebook wants that future to ever become a reality, it needs to promote its own communications system more aggressively (though still cautiously).

A step like today’s is just one in a progression. I’d expect more to come.


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— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google