Facebook's Social Inbox: Changing Communication Forever

5 minute read
Chelsi Nakano avatar

Is Facebook's new messaging system an e-mail replacement? As CEO Mark Zuckerberg so concisely put it at the platform's official announcement event yesterday, "No."  What it is, however, is a system that's going to change communication as we know it, forever. Here's a look at why.

The Facebook Generation

"Talking to high schoolers makes me feel very old," said Zuckerg, 26.

As someone born in the same year, I understand where he's coming from. I mean, sure, we're in our mid-twenties during an era when 30-35 is supposedly the new "it" age and it isn't uncommon to see both men and women over 45 lazily considering a mid-life crisis, so it probably seems a tad premature. But when you're talking in Internet speak, consider how quickly things move in the social realm these days and you'll understand why 26 is no spring chicken. 

I got to see Zuck speak at this year's advertising festival in Cannes, where he noted the significance of being the first generation to grow up with the Internet in the home. We used AOL and Netscape, we played Myst and that one old skiing game for PC (does anyone remember the title?), we built crude webpages using Angelfire, and we've grown into avid users of every major communication system to bait us: e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging, social network messaging (in that order). 

But show that list to today's youngster and you'd probably get scoffed at. Why use E-mail when you can text message? E-mail is slow and boring. Why use instant messaging when you can just hop on Facebook, a.k.a. the center of the Web? 

The new Facebook Messages release considers all of these things and takes the whole shebang one step further. 

It's Romantic

If you missed out on yesterday's big news, here's the gist: Facebook Messages combines the most popular forms of communication (e-mail, text messaging, and Facebook's own private messaging and instant messaging) and jams them into one convenient feed.

For example, let's say my friend John sends me a Facebook message in the morning and I reply right away because, let's be real, I work on the Internet and always have Facebook open. Next, let's say John sends me a text message in the afternoon. Not only will my phone receive the message, but so will the thread John and I started earlier in the day. I can reply directly from the thread and John's phone will receive my reply. If I reply from my phone, both John's phone and our conversation thread within Facebook will receive the reply. This means we can continue to communicate the way we want to, from whichever platform we choose.

Because every message sent from John, regardless of the platform, will live in the same single John thread within my Facebook account, I now have a record of everything he's ever said to me, forever. You can see this as either creepy or efficient, it's up to you. Personally, I like Facebook's official example: "Imagine you had the entire history of your conversations with your boyfriend or your girlfriend. I mean, everything from 'Hey, you wanna get coffee later?' all the way to, 'You've gotta pick up the kids tonight at soccer practice.'" 

Learning Opportunities

Think that's an exaggeration? Think again. Check out this piece from CG artist Maxime Luère. Titled "A LIFE ON FACEBOOK", the video was uploaded on November 9th of this year, and has tugged enough heartstrings and peaked enough general interest to clear three million views on YouTube:

The best part of Facebook Messages, however, has nothing to do with romance and everything to do with conversation. Rather than claiming to open new communication doors, Facebook Messages works to keep the ones we currently have open. Now I can e-mail my teenage cousin and instead of waiting weeks for him to actually check his inbox, I'll likely get a reply right away. And when my mom e-mails me, she can rest assured that her message won't get lost in a sea of work e-mails and spam. 

Why it Really Isn't E-mail, or Anything Google 

Speaking of spam, junk mail is a really good example of why Facebook's new platform isn't e-mail. Dubbed The Social Inbox,  Facebook's messaging system is a friends-only communication hub. Meaning this isn't about advertising or newsletters or Viagra. Even if your Facebook address ends up in the wrong hands, you can block any unwelcome notes immediately. 

Further, Facebook is trying to be extra delicate with the whole privacy thing. By default, the Facebook inbox only shows messages from your friends and their friends, but you can promote any messages (like e-mails from your grandma, who doesn't have a Facebook account) to the inbox if you choose to, and from then on messages from that same contact will arrive front and center. And, if your privacy settings are set to Friends Only, any message that isn't from a friend will bounce. 

No, this isn't e-mail, but it's certainly a system that has the potential to turn the way we do things today upside-down. That assumption probably sounds way too familiar, but unlike the unfortunate case of Google Wave, Facebook has a target audience, and that audience is social.

While e-mail is and will remain an essential system for business communications, I can see Facebook Messages entirely replacing e-mail practice in the casual sense. Whether or not that will one day equal a "Gmail killer" remains to be seen, but for now I think it's safe to say there's a tiny new ding in Google's rainbow.