Facebook’s New Inbox May Siphon Social, Informal Messages From Email

After using Facebook’s overhauled Messages for a few days, we agree that is isn’t — as the company stresses — an email replacement. But it will help the social network absorb informal, social communication that would once have been relegated to the traditional email inbox.

On the surface, Facebook’s Messages appears to be a modest touchup. The revamp cleans out the noise from Groups and Events, shows a user’s entire conversation history and makes users reachable anywhere and on every device. It doesn’t have the newfangled, complex interface of Wave, Google’s failed take on the future of communication, and it doesn’t have IMAP or POP support, which would let users sync their Facebook Messages with other systems.

It’s simple, because the design constraint Facebook now confronts every time it launches a product is that it has to be palatable to mainstream, late adopters. So the company’s latest string of launches have been notable more for their potential to scale instead of their imaginative design.

That said, the new Messages was actually created with the text and chat-heavy habits of teenagers in mind, positioning the company to stay relevant to the next generation of information consumers. Users in their 20s, 30s and older may not give up Gmail or Yahoo Mail, but perhaps teens will develop a habit of giving out their @facebook.com addresses. The social network already facilitates 4 billion private messages a day and has 350 million active users on its Messages product.

“We don’t think a modern messaging system is going to be e-mail,” founder Mark Zuckerberg said, adding that the teenagers he interviewed complained that e-mail was too slow. Users had to enter a topic into the subject line and the person to whom it was addressed.

“It really adds a lot of friction and cognitive load to the process of sending e-mail,” he said. From this research, Zuckerberg and other Facebook engineers realized they needed to build a lightweight, constantly-present communications tool that would interface with older tools like e-mail.

He said that a modern system needed to have seven characteristics. It needed to be seamless, informal, immediate, personal, simple, minimal and short.

Here are a couple, long-term changes we could see happening with the new Messages:

  • Informal, social communication may migrate to Facebook away from email. Any type of messaging where Facebook was one of several options to reach a friend may consolidate on the social network. More formal types of communication — with work, or with your bank — will stay with email. Over time, this division could make email less attractive as more core, social communication moves to Facebook.
  • The SMS integration seems to be working well, without sending too many unnecessary expensive texts. In the past two to three days, I’ve only received one text despite receiving several messages a day. As Josh Constine pointed out in an earlier post, Facebook processes several signals to determine which medium to route it to. If the recipient is actively online on Facebook they’ll receive the Message as a Chat. If the Message is a reply to an email, it will be sent to email. Users can check a box next to the reply field to purposefully send a text message.
  • Messages could fuel more friend requests as Facebook’s inbox becomes a more important gateway to communicating with people.
  • There aren’t any apparent opportunities for developers to use the Inbox as an additional channel to reach users. They will still have to reply on the Games dashboard, cross-promotion and advertising.
  • As we wrote in an earlier post, Messages will give Facebook extra data about a user’s strong ties. At its inception, Facebook was a tightly-knit, college network. But as it opened up to the public from 2006 onward, it became more about acquiring and strengthening weak ties instead of reinforcing existing close friendships. This came to a head at the end of last year, when Facebook made a series of changing defaulting more user information to be public. In the last half of 2010, the company has shifted back, launching a number of products like Groups and Places that are more about supporting closed, or real-world interaction. Messages adds another layer to this. The people a user messages privately may be closer than people they occasionally comment on.