In-Depth Review: Facebook’s New Message Inbox Product

Yesterday, Facebook launched its new Messages product, allowing users to see their communication with someone over email, Facebook Messages, Facebook Chat, instant messages, and SMS in the same thread. Facebook automatically delivers messages where it thinks a user is most likely to see them, creates a unified history of the messages, and filters the threads by relationship with the sender to create a Social Inbox.

Here’s a closer look at exactly how the new Messages product works:

Setting Up Messages

Facebook will be rolling out access to the new features over the next several months. Members of the press have been set up with accounts, and can invite two friends each using the multi-friend selector. These invites are not delivered immediately, though, and instead put the recipient near the top of the queue for the roll out.

When a user gains access to the new Messages product, they’ll see a prompt at the top of their home page. From there, they’re directed to claim their new [public username] email address. Emails from friends and friends of friends are routed to their primary Messages folder, while emails from other senders are filtered into the Other Messages folder. Users can still change their privacy settings to prevent non-friends from sending them messages. Emails from anyone who isn’t authorized by this settings are not delivered, and no bounce message is returned.

Next, users are asked to connect their mobile phone to their Facebook account “so friends can use Messages to send you texts”. In the same way that users have activated Facebook for mobile through Account Settings, users get a confirmation code texted to them, which they enter online to confirm their phone number. Lastly, users are asked to go online through  Facebook Chat to receive Messages over this medium as well.

The Social Inbox

Once set up, users will see that they now have two folders. The “Messages” folder defaults to hold all of a user’s Messages with friends or friends of friends. “Other Messages” holds Messages with those who aren’t connected to a user, Page updates, Event messages, and messages from old groups. When a user has new Messages, they’ll see counters next to the Messages navigation links in the Facebook home page’s left sidebar.

Users can move conversations between folders to increase or decrease their visibility. Messages from friends of friends display how a user is connected to the sender.

Each thread has a radio button next to it allowing users to toggle it between read and unread. Within each thread, the medium from which a Message was sent is denoted with icons for email or chat. At the bottom of the inbox, users see options to view their Archive or Junk, to which Messages can be assigned to reduce clutter. Users also have the option to permanently delete conversations.

Sending and Receiving Messages

When a user sends a Message, 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. Regardless of the delivery medium, all Messages appear in the inbox in a thread with the recipient, creating a history of the conversation. This is the first time Facebook has offered users a record of their Facebook Chat, and this functionality could pull users away from GChat, which many people use for its instant message log.

If a user opens a Facebook Chat, the last few Messages from the thread are displayed in the Chat window for context. When users receive email from Messages, the previous few Messages in the thread are included with the new Message.

When replying to a Message, users can toggle a checkbox to use Quick Reply mode, in which hitting ENTER sends the reply, similar to instant messaging. Facebook has integrated user requests for a forward button, allowing users to add people to conversations. Users can upload multiple attachments, including photos, or take a single photo with their webcam. Users must download attachments to view them, unless they are Microsoft Office documents, such as .doc or .xls files, in which case users can follow a link to where they can see a preview.

How Messages Will Change Communication

The new Messages product will not immediately disrupt the institution of email. Information which only comes in that medium, and which rarely requires interaction a human, such as bank statements or newsletters, is best kept within one’s email inbox. Exchanges in which users share lots of attachments, especially in formats other than Microsoft Office’s, will benefit from in-line previews and mass downloading offered by established email services.

Over time, however, social conversations may be pulled into Facebook. If a conversation naturally occurs across mobile, synchronous, and asynchronous mediums, such as day-to-day exchanges with a friend, using a system which automatically optimizes for immediacy will make the exchange easier. Once part of a conversation occurs through Facebook Chat or private messages, email and text messages will soon feed back to the Social Inbox. Having a centralized, persistent record of the distributed conversation will also make Messages useful for organizing groups, perhaps better than Facebook’s Groups product which doesn’t encompass SMS or record Group Chat.

While the aggregation of additional mediums is useful, Facebook has also solved the biggest problem with its old Messages product. By filtering Messages according the user’s relationship with the sender, users will no longer lose an important one-to-one conversation amongst low-content Event messages, broadcasted Page updates, and other noise. When a user visits their main Messages folder, they’ll only see active conversations with the people they choose. By making it so easy to continue the conversation, Messages will keep us in direct contact as effectively as the news feed keeps us in indirect contact.

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