Facebook’s messaging dog & pony show

I originally wrote this for my blog over at ITWorld, but then decided it was a bit too ranty for a pro blog, and anyway it isn’t really my ‘beat’ over there. So I decided to post it here (in its raw, first draft form). Very very off-topic but hey, a good rant is always entertaining to someone (even if that someone is just the one doing the ranting):

Yesterday Facebook held yet another event (they’re getting to be like weekly occurrences, these Facebook events) to unveil their new not-an-email system, the Social Inbox. Well, part of it was the Social Inbox. I was one of the 30,000 or so people to watch the announcement online and I never figured out what the overall name of the system was. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called it a “modern messaging system” but that was about it. Ryan Faas covered the event but I was so bemused by the dog and pony show put on my Zuckerberg and Facebook Director of Engineering Andrew Bosworth that I had to chime in.

Warning: old guy “you kids get off my lawn” rant incoming.

First, the whole system is apparently based on what high school kids do. We were told that high school kids don’t send emails because there’s too much “friction” involved with all the tedious details like a subject line and a salutation. Really? Adding a subject line is that hard? In this Facebook-powered new world order how are we going to scan the dozens and dozens of emails that we as professionals get, once subject lines are abolished by these high schoolers? How many important emails does the typical high school kid get, anyway? Of course they don’t need full emails: they’re just chatting with each other about high school kid stuff. Why are we modeling general-purpose systems on such a specific demographic?

Another anecdote, this one shared by Bosworth, talked about a box of letters that his 90 year old grandmother keeps in her closet. These are letters that his grandfather sent his grandmother when they were courting long, long ago. Bosworth lamented the fact that he doesn’t have a box of letters. Facebook to the rescue again! By archiving all your conversations, whatever format they’re in, Bosworth suggests we’ll all have our digital box of letters when we get old.

Now what’s wrong with this picture? I’ll tell you what. If you can’t exert the energy to add a subject line or a salutation to your email, chances are whatever you’re writing probably isn’t worth holding onto for the next 70 years. The reason Bosworth’s grandmother’s letters were so dear to her is that his grandfather put some thought and care into what he was going to write. All those social micro-updates about where you’re going to have lunch aren’t going to be that interesting to you when you’re 90. Trust me, you don’t need to keep every word you write. I’m not claiming there aren’t a lot of passionate and thoughtful emails flying back and forth through the ether; clearly there are. But if something is really worth saving, it’s worth saving on your own terms, not in some service that may or may not exist when you’re old and gray.

One last thing. During the Q&A session someone pointed out that their Facebook friends weren’t really their true friends. Their real friends were their email friends. (This came up while discussing the feature where a Facebook friend’s message gets high visibility in the Social Inbox.) The response was, essentially, that this person was doing it wrong and that all your Facebook friends should be true, legitimate friends and not just people you’ve encountered online. I know that my list of Facebook “friends” includes plenty of people that are, at best, acquaintances. I don’t want these people’s messages about Karaoke Night at the bowling alley back in the town I grew up in to be a ‘high priority’ message. So I guess I’m doing it wrong, too. (To be fair, you can ‘train’ the Social Inbox but having to do so seems to go against Zuckerberg’s assertion that people don’t want to fiddle with this stuff. Specifically he mentioned that no one wants to make lists.) Considering how many activities on Facebook (mostly games) pressure you to have lots of “friends” I found this attitude particularly disingenuous.

I’m really not condemning Facebook’s modern messaging system: I’ll give it a try and maybe it’ll change the way I do business, but I somehow doubt it. I don’t really want a unified inbox where all my business correspondence gets mixed in with emails from my dentist about my next checkup and IM conversations with my girlfriend about what we’re going to have for dinner. There’s something to be said for keeping different types of content segregated. Heck, I have several different email accounts for just that reason.

And that’s without even considering Facebook’s spotty record when it comes to privacy.

Maybe I’ve finally officially reached curmudgeon status, but I just don’t think most of us are ready to turn over all our communications to Facebook. At least I hope we’re not. I’d hate to see one company wind up with that much power.

What do you think? Are you ready to sign up for the Social Inbox?

8 thoughts on “Facebook’s messaging dog & pony show

  1. This, I think, is saddest because Zuckerberg is right. Kids, in general, aren’t willing to put a lot of effort into much these days. It’s all about instant gratification and, (again, generalizing), at the cost of someone else. KIds just have to throw a hissy and parents fork over a credit card number or give them whatever it is they’re asking for. There’s no real effort involved. I used to think that text-speak came about as an answer to character space but sometimes I wonder. I gripe that my kids won’t help me clean up but my husband will counter that if I’d stop doing it for them then maybe they would. We coddle our kids and deliver what they want on a silver platter instead of teaching them the value in effort. So yeah, he’s right in that kids don’t want to take the time to put much effort into it.

    And I think he knows that many kids control their parents wallets. Not a bad demographic to target from a marketing stand point.

    I won’t be using it though. I like my gmail.

  2. The whole thing sounds a lot like Google Buzz. Only worse. BECAUSE it’s my Facebook acquaintances and not my Gmail friends and people I choose to read. O dear God.

  3. I am with you 100%!


    We have email. We have IM. Google recognized the tooth length of these as well, and tried Wave. Wave was too over-engineered, though.

    Facebook is catering to it’s largest demographic when they talk about targeting high school kids. They know which side their bread is buttered on. Plus, apeasing their younger users means they’re making overtures to them in the hopes they’ll stick with them longer…”we’re building stuff for YOU! Not those old people.”

    Have ypu ever actually WATCHED high school kids? This weekend, we were out geocaching in the woods with my sister in law and her two teenage sons. The oldest was texting CONSTANTLY…in the woods. He could’t let go of it. The cliche exisits because it’s true, and Zuckerberg realizes this.

    I didn’t get e mechanical details, but I would guess that FB will somehow integrate an SMS gateway, allowing text messages to pass through FB to end up in their friend’s social inbox. For kids who don’t have smartphones, they can still use the service on the go without changing their behavior…but they’ll have a record of their conversations on FB, and can reach each other from FB to mobile.

    I have. FB account for keeping in touch with a handful of people I don’t communicate with on a regular basis. I use email every day to communicate with friends who are either behind corporate firewalls, or are bleeding edge Luddites who refuse to use IM or Twitter. FB’s push has nothing I’m interested in, but according to this evenit, I don’t think I’m their target audience anyway.

  4. Nope, I haven’t seen it. I hear its pretty good.

    Scopique you make some valid points and I have to admit I approached the whole event as if Facebook was trying to pitch a new service to the audience in the room, but yeah, that’s clearly not the case.

    One of the things I really hated was that it turns every interaction with a particular user into a single stream. So if we’re in the middle of a long email discussion about the future of Facebook and I send you a txt asking if you want to meet up for a beer, that txt gets put in the same “conversation” that all the emails go into.

    At least that’s how I understood it. I’m actually looking forward to being invited just to see what the reality is…

  5. The act of letter writing is sadly a lost art and never will come back. Read some of the letters from the U.S. Civil War era and up thru Vietnam that soliders sent home to their famlies. Now its a blurb in a small character limited tweet of Facebook message using all sorts of nothing word abbreviations.

    (and get off my lawn)

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