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Summary:

When it comes to Facebook, you can count on one thing –- CEO/Founder Mark Zuckerberg is not afraid to move hundreds of millions of people in a new direction. That’s one reason why the Palo Alto-based social web company has been able to constantly reinvent itself.

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When it comes to Facebook, you can count on one thing –- CEO/Founder Mark Zuckerberg is not afraid to lose preconceived notions and instead move hundreds of millions of people in an entirely new direction. And sometimes his ideas work, which is one of the reasons why the Palo Alto-based social web company has been able to constantly reinvent itself.

For first three years of its life, the company was merely a social network, but then it transformed itself in quick succession into a social web platform and then a social aggregator of the web. Today, the company launched its “social inbox,” a new kind of messaging system that is the first public manifestation of the new new Facebook.

Facebook’s newest core competency is communications — a way to become even more indispensable in our daily web lives.

About four years ago, I wrote a column for Business 2.0 that essentially asked for what Facebook has done with this new social inbox:

E-mail ought to be reinvented to meet the needs of our always-connected lives. That means there’s still a mega-opportunity to reinvent the entire medium. E-mail has become a crutch, a way of passing the buck. In today’s inboxes, all e-mail messages are equal. In reality, of course, some are more equal than others. Spam, alerts, and calendar items all need to be treated separately. A smart inbox would — all in one interface — catch spam in junk filters, display the wine reminder in an IM, move company news to an RSS feed, and intelligently negotiate appointment requests with your calendar in the background.

Facebook has not only reinvented the idea of the inbox, but it has gone one better: it has done so by moving away from the traditional idea of email. One of the reasons why Yahoo and Google Mail have struggled to become entirely social is because it is hard to graft a social hierarchy on top of tools of communication. If you look at Gmail – it has most of the elements that are available in the new social inbox, but they are all discrete elements and give the appearance of many different silos, being cobbled together.

Facebook did the exact opposite – it imagined email only as a subset of what is in reality communication. SMS, Chat, Facebook messages, status updates and email is how Zuckerberg sees the world.  With the address book under its control, Facebook is now looking to become the “interaction hub” of our post-broadband, always-on lives.  Having trained nearly 350 million people to use its stream-based, simple inbox, Facebook has reinvented the “communication” experience.

Soon after the announcement, my Facebook account was upgraded: I have a new email address, I have my inbox connected to the SMS on my mobile phone, and I have Facebook messages. The new inbox doesn’t look any different from the old Facebook inbox, except now I can email the outside world and folks can email me directly. I can check a small box and send a message as an SMS and receive replies.

All the “messages” look essentially the same. The social graph acts as a gatekeeper against spam – only friends or friend-of-friends can email me. Others, when they email me, will see their emails end up in a folder called (what else): “Other.” It is not email as you and I know it — and I like it. Will this be my main email client or service? Not likely! But it has the utility to send messages outside of Facebook’s walled garden.

A few weeks ago, in a conversation with Slide CEO Max Levchin, I mused about how Facebook has essentially become the address book of our ever-connected lives. Thanks to seemingly frivolous tasks such as throwing sheep, poking people or simply wishing others happy birthday, the company has built an effective, socially relevant and meaningful map of relationships.

Facebook knows who our friends are, where we can find them and how much we communicate with them. The address book status allows the company to essentially become a communication hub for all sort of services. So, when looked at from that perspective, the launch of the new Social Inbox is not a surprise, and in fact it is a prescient move by Facebook.

Why?

Facebook as a service is amazingly effective when it focuses all its attention on what is the second order of friends – people you would like to stay in touch with, but just don’t have enough bandwidth (time) to stay in touch with. Those who matter to you the most are infinitely intimate, and as a result you communicate with them via SMS, IM Chat and voice. So far, this intimate communication has eluded Facebook. The launch of the new social inbox is a first step by Facebook to get a grip on this real world intimacy.

For an alternative take, check out Dan Gillmor’s thoughtful and cautionary essay on the Social Inbox.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

  1. Great post OM, I can wait to listen to the next TWiT with you, alongside the usual suspects, I sincerely hope you’re on soon.

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    1. Thanks Jorge.

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  2. I can’t help but feel like this is a devolution to the days of Compuserve or AOL. Didn’t we do all this then?

    BTW: “a way to become even more indispensable in our daily web lives” – You presume everyone is like you. They aren’t. I’ve seen college kids scaling way back on FB in the past 12 months, it’s losing it’s allure to many.

    It is, perhaps not 100%, but, largely dispensable. Certainly, replaceable. All things must pass.

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    1. I don’t think so. I’d rather think Facebook is here to stay. Zuckerberg has put social netwroking to another level. Sure, like everything else some people will move away from it for all kinds of reason but there’s something about human nature, something that deeply defines us: We need to connect with each others! That’s why I wouldn’t count on Facebook’s devolution.

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    2. Considering that 99% of the content on Facebook is flash games, ads, trivia, and friend invites and posts from phishing bots posing as “friends,” it is no wonder that Facebook is AOL reincarnated.

      As Facebook discourages thoughtful, lengthy discourse in favor of two-three sentence (trivial) wall posts, and as the “walled garden” locks out business email senders such as Amazon order confirmation and UPS, why would I want to rely on Facebook for serious communication?

      Never store serious, mission-critical data on Facebook – especially when that data gets automatically shared with “friends.”

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  3. Om, isn’t Facebook messaging almost identical to Google Talk + Gmail + Google Wave? It doesn’t seem revolutionary to me. I’ve been using Priority Inbox for a while now, and so at this point it does a pretty good job of putting a hierarchy to my messages. I can SMS, chat, and even make voice/video calls from my Gmail box.

    I think today’s announcement was HUGE for Facebook’s growth, but it’s getting too much press as “an email killer” when in fact we’ve already seen all of this technology.

    I really like your review. You hit the mark, without the over-hype and drama that most other journalists are spinning.

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    1. I think you are right about this messaging being much like what Google has been offering. The beauty of this inbox is that is will be seamless and you won’t even notice any difference in the usage experience. I think this is the redefining of the “experience” of communication vs Google Mail Platform.

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      1. I tend to disagree. Today I can send email, chat or SMS from the same Google window. And with the integration of Google calendars and mobile I have all the features of facebook without having a social media group tagging things and showing them to friends.

        But does Facebook offer spell check, priority inbox, anti-virus, or privacy to only pass out your address to those you want to have it?

        I think not.

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      2. Eric, I think the new Facebook Messaging is more of a competitor to a services like KIK Messenger,Yahoo Messenger, or AIM. It’s not meant to compete with Google… that’s just the media hype it’s been given.

        With integration into Windows Live, it’s providing more support to Microsoft’s competition with Google Apps, but Facebook remains a personal product, not a business system.

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  4. [...] to become the “interaction hub” of our post-broadband, always-on lives.” - GigaOm  Meet The New New Facebook “This is much more ambitious. As Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, it will [...]

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  5. I’m sorry, but that dog won’t hunt, Monsignor.

    Your quote decries how poorly the e-mail of old was at sorting incoming mail (~”all e-mail is not equal”), but you then go on to suggest that FB will *solve* this issue? FB, the company that does a poorer job of sorting signal from noise than any other service I can think of today. The solution, to aggregate various incoming data into a main inbox and an other inbox, and where all the different sorts of messages look the same?

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    1. Jack

      Good points, but what FB has done is constrained email to friends and friends of friends, which has already increased the utility of the email system and has eliminated some of the ills of spam. I think this is one product from FB where signal might be stronger than you think.

      As I point out, FB is good at stuff which pertains to friends and one more layer beyond that. Anything other than that, it becomes noisy. I wasn’t looking to be impressed by the new inbox, but it was a pleasant surprise, mostly because it doesn’t mess with what is a good simple experience.

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      1. But presumably you talk about different things with your close friends, right? You don’t simply have one single ongoing stream of consciousness conversation. Lumping every conversation with a friend into one conversation is the opposite of what I’d want.

        Overwhelmingly, I have simple, one-topic, consecutive conversations with *strangers.* With friends, however, I have complex, multi-topic, concurrent conversations.

        If ever there was a time to throw around the whole, “Not in DNA” meme, this is it.

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  6. their sms service is very well integrated…facebook can morph as a good microblogging tool using mobile sms/mms.it has got an integrated photo/video sharing facility that twitter dosent have right now.

    facebook has a bright future ahead, but it needs to take care of not to peep into peoples privacy too much.

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  7. Nice summary and look forward. Even if this new project and direction minimizes SPAM, that will be a terrific contribution!

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  8. Facebook failed ‘business at the speed of trust’ and this is evident with confusing and changing account default settings. For this blunder, people will be reluctant to adopt any ‘solution’ or aggregation to enhance communication. The second reason is that there is no professional technical support provided. Any person who has tried to resolve a technical issue knows what this is like. One wonders about the safety and security of the back end solutions.

    On the other side, I could be wrong here and people will pile in and trust, adopt and use the new Facebook solution.

    We are probably only in the first inning of more new and exciting technology, especially considering the advent of 4G networks.

    We live in an interesting time.

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  9. I tend to agree with what Melanie says. Initially FB focused on high school and college kids and then the fuddy duddy’s joined in. Kids today are moving on and once the news spreads that FB is uncool then watch FB come under severe pressure. It is interesting that with Messages, FB focused on kids because it knows that is where the huge number of its users are and most of them use SMS and IM. Tumblr is catching on.

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  10. In some ways it reminds me Google wave, but I wish for Facebook it doesn’t follow the same path.

    I agree with Google CEO that this new Facebook features aren’t a threat to Google activities, because the target is different (Google is a quite serious email provider and most of all is more secure than Facebook) and though messaging is integrated with Facebook, IMHO Google is more usable.

    Again, I understand FB need to cover a gap and use his vast “installed base” (or addressable market), but it would have better consolidate and strengthen his features before getting into a such complex addon, with no (substanntial) innovations and more risks for privacy.

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