Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

What Facebook Messages Means and Why You Should Care

Facebook yesterday launched an interesting product that tries to get at the heart of how highly connected people communicate casually. CEO Mark Zuckerberg and others from the company reiterated over and over again (see my live notes; the repetition is excessive) that the product is “not email.”

In large part, that’s because if Facebook Messages were evaluated as an email system, it would look terrible. There’s no incorporation of IMAP so you can access your mail from other clients, there’s no way to save drafts, there’s no way to cc people, there are no folders.

Even more jarring, there are no subject lines or time stamps, and you only ever have one continuous conversation with a contact. Instead, like instant messaging, when you type a message and press enter, it gets set loose to your contact.

But maybe Facebook has a point, and we don’t need all that cc, bcc gobbledygook for personal communications. Maybe we just want to more casually correspond with each other. And some of these email conventions have probably outlived their usefulness. Facebook says prior to the change its top three subject lines were blank, “Hi!” and “Yo.”–if that tells you anything.

The problem is, the way Facebook Messages works is a bit complicated and unfamiliar. You can see why the company is rolling it out very, very slowly–it’s the kind of new experience that aggravates people and makes them whiny.

Facebook Messages treats the correspondence between you and another person as a single conversation, whether it’s by IM, within the Facebook Messages interface, received as an email or as a Facebook-delivered SMS. Often those channels overlap. Messages that are not from Facebook members, and those from entities other than individuals, get shunted to a second-tier inbox.

Yesterday I was playing with the new Messages, first within the Messages interface on the Facebook Web site, then on IM on the Web site, and then via text message when I closed my computer. A few things confused me–for instance, chat is disabled and disappears when you go into Messages. I guess it’s redundant to have the same conversation in two places. But as someone who felt like I was in an IM chat, it was super weird.

Another thing that’s odd is that those life-time conversation threads only really work for one-to-one relationships. Group messages seem like a little bit of an afterthought; for instance, group threads show a split-screen image of two of the participants’ profile pics, no matter how many people participate. The system is prejudiced against people who email you from outside Facebook (say, your mother emails your address from an address), until you explicitly say you want to see them in your main Facebook inbox. If a person sends you messages from two email addresses, Facebook doesn’t allow you to help it understand that they are the same person.

While I will probably acclimate to the Messages experience over the next few weeks, one thing that’s going to continue to be very annoying, and accentuated by Messages, is redundant Facebook notifications. Already a problem for those of us who use Facebook on multiple platforms like the Web and a phone app, redundant notifications run rampant in Facebook Messages. Say someone sends you a message from the Web site and checks the box to send it to your phone. Without changing any defaults, you could get a text message from Facebook, an email message from Facebook, a new IM on the Web site and a flag that you have a new message in the Facebook nav bar.

I spoke to Messages product manager Dan Hsiao yesterday, and he said the team had thought carefully about trimming down notifications but decided it would be worse if users weren’t alerted to the fact that they had a message.

Hsiao said that his mantra in building the product was to make it “email compatible but not email complete.”

I think there will be two main outcomes from the new Facebook Messages:

  • Other Web mail outfits will (and should) better integrate their email and instant messaging conversations, based on Facebook’s example. Folks like Gmail can go one better, and incorporate additional forms of communication like voice messages. Facebook is right–there’s no reason this shouldn’t all be condensed and scannable.
  • Provided the Facebook Messages product doesn’t have major usability issues, it will continue to supplant email, especially for young people. There will be a bigger distinction between formal, especially corporate, correspondence via email and personal messages. If you think about it, we all already make a distinction between messages from people and messages from mailing lists, and Facebook is right to say the ones from people are more important.

The thing is, Facebook Messages splits out a part of the communication experience that is, for most, a part of other tools and services.

Facebook Messages won’t replace email for people who use email for professional purposes, people who prefer desktop mail clients or people who firmly associate themselves and their archive of emails with an existing address.

Rather than killing Gmail (and its much larger competitors Hotmail and Yahoo), Facebook Messages will probably have the biggest impact on usage of IM services like AIM and GChat. The only thing the new product will fully replace is the previous version of Facebook Messages–which, by the way, has 350 million active users, and four billion messages sent per day.

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my ethics statement.

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