Is Facebook Messages the Future of Email?

17th Nov, 2010

Last Monday Facebook launched Messages – it’s vision of how people will communicate in the future. It incorporates email, Facebook chat, messages and sms to position Facebook as the portal that connects you with your friends, no matter what device they might be on, and all of it in real-time. You don’t have to worry about channel to send the communication through, you only need to select which contact you wish to connect with. It’s an impressive addition to Facebook and, like all new developments, is designed to keep people on the website longer. There’s more on the product below, but first here’s the official video:

It was well signposted that last Mondays announcement would involve a Facebook email service and shortly users will be able to claim an email address. I think my big fear leading up to the official announcement was how the service would deal with spam. We have seen pages and profiles fall victim to spam and dodgy messages in the past, will an opening up of even more communication channels give spammers more of an opportunity? Yes I think it will. However, Facebook have installed a filter of sorts that will seperate messages from friends with messages from non-friends, which could be potential spam. Facebook always place the person to person connection above that of a brand to brand. This has come up in a couple of recent posts too. In both How To be More Popular on Facebook and How To Rank In Facebook Search I explained how Facebook will automatically rank posts from people or profiles in newsfeeds and search higher than those of brands or pages. This kind of tackles the problem of spam, but it may only be a stop gap measure for now.

One potential work around is for businesses that have personal profiles. They are connected to individuals and this could be a way of sending them messages, they can get on any device in realtime. Although Facebook state messages will only be on a one to one basis for now.

Conversation History

The official Facebook blog post explains how every conversation between two people will be stored. This is like an extension of Gmails never ending storage, brought out into a wider communications catchment that includes messages, email, sms and chat. It was explained on the Facebook blog as

You can see everything you’ve discussed with each friend as a single conversation.  I’m intensely jealous of the next generation who will have something like Facebook for their whole lives. They will have the conversational history with the people in their lives all the way back to the beginning: From “hey nice to meet you” to “do you want to get coffee sometime” to “our kids have soccer practice at 6 pm tonight.” That’s a really cool idea.

Facebook have realised the more of our actual lives is tied with the service the harder it is for us to disconnect from it.

I saw this today, the once mighty Myspace is going to introduce Facebook Connect. This will allow Facebook users seamless connection with Myspace. Facebook is now so popular even rivals are tapping into its user base. With events, places, deals, video, photos and now messages Facebook is really logging our lives, as Google once did with the rest of the Internet. This isn’t the first time this has come to the fore either, but in a post describing Facebook Places I wrote:

Facebook Places was put into more emotional terms by the vice president of product at Facebook, Christopher Cox, who explained these check ins would serve as a collective memory, lasting over time “Those stories are going to be pinned to a physical location so that maybe one day in 20 years our children will go to Ocean Beach in San Francisco, and their little magical thing will start to vibrate and say, ‘This is where your parents first kissed.”

It’s watching.

The Future of Email

Besides the negative points raised, it’s a pretty cool concept, ditching the need to think about what device you can contact someone on, and instead just picking them out of your Facebook contact list. Messages will be grouped by friend and not by date which is a nice approach, especially if you need to check something back. Chances are you will more than likely remember who you had the conversation with, just not when it happened.

Where’s the Advertising?

Gmail scans our emails to provide targeted adverts within the service. Facebook messages surely has Google worried because now Facebook can scan that communication, add it to the other information it has collected such as your likes, age, location, what pubs you visit, your relationship status and your birthday to deliver a hyper targeted advert. Inevitably Facebook will seek to monatise this part of their offering in some way. Perhaps it won’t be through adverts in the actual conversation stream, but through collating data to make existing advert space hyper targeted, and thus more lucrative.

Facebook Versus The Rest

Google have to be someway concerned with the roll out of Facebook Messages and not just how it will affect their advertising revenue. Once the service is fully operational and available to the 500+ million users of Facebook it will dwarf the 170 million users of Gmail, assuming there is mass adoption of the service. As I mentioned earlier Facebook wants us to remain on the website for longer, Messages will increase our dependence on the service and our time spend on it. Facebook already towers over its competitors when it comes to minutes spend on the network. Per month we spend a huge 475 minutes on Facebook, compared with 22.5 minutes for Twitter (although this may exclude those who use 3rd party applications to access Twitter, as these may be heavier users) and just 13.5 minutes for Myspace. In email competitors Facebook still trumps with AOL and Hotmail accounting for 209 minutes and 150 respectively.

It’s a bold and interesting move on the part of Facebook. I can’t hep wonder will people just not want to connect to one service that has so much information on us, but at the same time there is a value to using the service, in making it easier for us to connect with friends.

For more on Facebook Messages check out their FAQ.