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Facebook Mail: Strengthening the Ties That Bind

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If you were looking for the bigger picture behind the tit-for-tat war that has been going on between Google (s goog) and Facebook over the ability to export your email contacts, another piece of the puzzle may have just fallen into place: the giant social network is making a major announcement on Monday, and one popular theory is that it will launch an email service it has reportedly been working on, code-named Project Titan. While many see this as an attack on Gmail, the bigger goal is likely to strengthen the ties (or chains) that bind Facebook to its core user base. But do they want — or need — Facebook email?

The recent tug-of-war over data exportability (“Battle of the Web Giants!”) has seen Google block Facebook from automatically importing Gmail contacts, followed by a workaround that the social network implemented to take advantage of Google’s open-door policies, and finally a snarky message from Google warning users about trapping their contacts inside Facebook. The backdrop to all of this is that those contacts — and the connections and relationships between them — are at the core of what Facebook is, and of what it offers to users (and thus, what creates much of the value it offers to advertisers).

Facebook’s defence of its actions was interesting, in the sense that the network seemed to be arguing that Google should have to allow users to export their contact info from Gmail, because it is just an email program — but Facebook shouldn’t have to do the same because it is a social network, and the rules around ownership of that contact information are more complex (and yet, Facebook routinely allows users to move their contact data to services offered by partners such as Microsoft (s msft) and Yahoo (s yhoo)). But the real reason for the network’s reluctance to allow this kind of data to be exported easily is that it is a fundamental part of the “social graph” that Facebook is so focused on.

Adding a full-featured email service to the network would strengthen Facebook’s ties to users, and particularly to those younger users who are still a large part of the network’s user base — and who have either not adopted email at all, have mostly given it up in favor of Facebook messaging, or are still using Hotmail accounts they set up when they were teenagers. Adding the ability to use an @facebook address for all Facebook-related contacts, including messaging and status updates or other information from the network, could lock those users in even further.

One other point: Offering an email service is an opportunity for Facebook, but it is also a potential risk. Why? Because in order to be really attractive — particularly to older users who already have other email accounts, including those they access through corporate clients such as Microsoft Outlook — it’s only going to work if it is as open as possible, and that means integrating with other email programs (and possibly even Microsoft’s Office Web Apps) as well as potentially offering support for mail on custom domains, the way Google does with its email service.

In other words, a fully extensible email service is going to be a pretty big door into (and therefore out of) Facebook’s walled garden. Among other things, it’s going to be a lot harder for Facebook to argue that it can’t export email contacts when it is running an email service identical to the one its giant competitor offers. But the bigger question is: Does anyone really want (or need) an email address?

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Rupert Ganzer

18 Responses to “Facebook Mail: Strengthening the Ties That Bind”

  1. It is funny how I am waiting for a social product worthy enough from Google so that I can leave Facebook once and for all.

    Giving Mark ability to read my correspondence anything above someone’s birthday planning? NO way. Did people forget his attitude toward our privacy?

    According to SAI sources, the following exchange is between a 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg and a friend shortly after Mark launched The Facebook in his dorm room:

    Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard
    Zuck: Just ask.
    Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS
    [Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?
    Zuck: People just submitted it.
    Zuck: I don’t know why.
    Zuck: They “trust me”
    Zuck: Dumb f***s.

    Does anyone still want a email address?

  2. Rohan Jayasekera

    For years people have been telling me that kids don’t use email so email is obsolescent. I’ve always countered that while kids can get away with communicating online with only their friends, via methods other than email, once they’re grown up they’ll want or need to be able to hand out an email address to non-friends just like all the other adults. If Facebook were to provide that email address, and to deliver the resulting email via the Facebook Messages system that the kids already use, that would be a win for both the user and for Facebook. Those of us who are old enough to have email addresses already wouldn’t be the target; we’ll gradually die off while newly minted Facebook-centric kids will replace us.

  3. Prasheen Prakash

    There were rumors on techcrunch that Facebook might be using microsoft exchange behind the scenes for Facebook email

    This was later rejected as turned out to be internal coorporate email for FB employees.

    But if Facebook has indeed built its email offering around Microsoft Exchange with all the web based MS office apps available to the users, then Gmail and parent Google will have tough times ahead. Outlook Email is one of the best email experiences in an coorporate environment and if they can be extended to the general public on such a massive scale this is not something which would looked at lightly by our friends at Google.
    Whether or not Exchange servers can support such huge volumes is not something I can comment on.

    Moreover this partnership will give Microsoft the headstart to the social networking graph it had been craving for. Once Microsoft has the email and collaoration data for the millions of FB users , acquisition of something like xobni (extensively covered by gigaom ) can change Microsoft influence in the social arena.

    Just my thoughts…

  4. How about anonymity? The problem I see with FB e-mail is that it would likely be linked to your FB profile page. Do people want their profiles/photos exposed to every person they exchange e-mail with? If I’m communicating with a potential employer, someone I’m negotiating a transaction on Craigslist with, or a landlord I’ve contacted about a house for rent, I would not want them instantly having visibility to my FB profile or friend list. Of course, my FB account is locked, but a huge portion of people keep elements of their FB profile open to the public and many peep their entire profile pubic.

    The beauty of gmail/yahoo/hotmail/etc for me is that it keeps my identity entirely concealed.

  5. Wonder if people use emails at all these days. I use emails only to register on various sites and for work (which is driven by outlook). Have plenty of email accounts (gmail, yahoo, school id….) but hardly check any. Social network sites have replaced mails long ago.

  6. Andrés Morales

    In our business we have to keep in touch with our customers regularly, and we’ve noticed that if we want them to really get the message, we better use facebook messages instead of regular email. Down here in Ecuador it would be huge if fb offered email service. H.U.G.E.

  7. The thought of doubling down on FB, from a user standpoint, makes me nauseous.

    That said, this is probably a good route for FB to go. If you look at the online advertising landscape, the folks that advertisers (will) want, but who are still basically up for grabs are students (i.e., the next middle class).

    There are a TON of students who rely on their school’s email service, but also use FB heavily. For these people, graduating to a FB email would make a lot of sense.

    That said, Google is already trying to lure in student users. Google’s free Google Apps Education Edition program gets student familiar with using Gmail and other Google apps, which makes graduating to Google seem very sensible.

    This strategy of offering a free enterprise suite (or even just free email) to schools is something FB likely won’t be able to provide out of the gate and is also something that academic institutions will likely be weary of adopting anyway. That leaves both Google and FB in strong position to continue pitching their case to users.

  8. A real trend is that many teenagers have never used an email client and are forced into the experience of using one when they reach college. If this happens on monday, Facebook will be helping their users transition to the email world and keeping them in the fold for all the personal and social email.

    Will be hard for Google to acquire the new wave of users already entrenched in Facebook.

  9. I’m a pretty avid Facebook user, but I’m also heavily entrenched in Gmail. Facebook’s existing messaging options are horrendous – not easy to use at all and just a hassle. I can say that *if* it really is a beefed up email service, I’ll just forward it into my Gmail (or use Gmail’s options to pull it in) and be done with it.

    • Yes, my thoughts exactly, Ricky. I think a lot of existing Gmail users will be in the same boat. But what about younger Facebook users who haven’t really adopted email or made it a core part of their lives? Could this be their Gmail?