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Facebook’s Social Inbox Wants to Take Over Your Email

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Updated. Facebook was widely expected to launch a new email service this morning, but what the company announced was much broader than email — CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it is a single “social inbox” for every kind of communication that people use online or from their mobile phones, including email, SMS, instant messaging and Facebook chat messages. Zuckerberg said that the company has tried to build what he called a “modern messaging system” that is lightweight and easy to use, and offers a number of features that blend the usability of email and the benefits of other systems such as Facebook chat, instant messaging and SMS.

The three main features of the new service include:

  • A seamless messaging system: Facebook’s social inbox handles email, but also SMS and IM. Users will be able to have email addresses, Zuckerberg says, “but this is not email — I don’t even think email will be the primary way people communicate.”
  • A single conversation history: Zuckerberg said that one thing that adds weight to email is threaded replies, so the new service will have a single conversation history for all your communication with a person, regardless of whether it comes via email, SMS, IM etc.
  • A social in-box: Because Facebook knows who your friends are, you can see only messages that are really relevant, says Zuckerberg, and therefore “the default experience is all really high-signal personal messages.” In other words, less spam.

Update: The Facebook CEO said the rollout of the new messaging system would be gradual, starting with a small group of invitation-only users (including those who were present at the announcement). Zuckerberg also said the existing messaging system — which this replaces — has more than 350 million active users, and the social network handles about 4 billion messages a day, including status updates and instant messages. Director of Engineering Andrew Bosworth told those at the press conference that the 15-person team working on the new system was the largest engineering team Facebook has ever had for a single product or feature.

It was clear from Zuckerberg’s comments at the launch that Facebook sees the new social inbox as way of appealing to younger users (as I described in my post about the rumored email launch). The Facebook CEO described how he was talking to high-school students while visiting his girlfriend’s family, and they said that none of them used email because it was “too slow.”

“I said ‘what do you mean, it’s instantaneous!’ Zuckerberg recalled. “I was kind of boggled by this.” But the Facebook founder said that he realized for many users, particularly younger users, email as it exists now is “too formal” and adds a lot of weight and social friction because “you have to think of the email address, think of a subject line, write ‘love Mark at the end'” and so on. The high-school students he spoke to preferred chat because it was easier and faster, he said — in other words, it had less “cognitive load.”

In many ways, what Facebook is trying to do seems a lot like Google’s ill-fated Wave (s goog)service: namely, create a single product that combines different forms of communication, including email, instant messaging, live chat, and so on. The benefit for Facebook is that it already has 350 million users who are addicted (on some level at least) to the social network’s messaging system, and many of them are probably like the high-school students that Zuckerberg talked to, and don’t use email. A unified inbox could give Facebook an even tighter relationship with those users — particularly in mobile, as Om pointed out.

Zuckerberg said Facebook doesn’t want to kill email (or Gmail, which he said “is a really good product”) but that over time, he sees more and more people moving away from email as their main form of communications, particularly with friends (although email is far from dying, as Simon noted in a post). When they are looking for something to move to, he suggested, Facebook’s unified social inbox will be right there waiting for them.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Robert Scoble

36 Responses to “Facebook’s Social Inbox Wants to Take Over Your Email”

  1. There are some comments here that – I believe – are missing the point.

    I don’t believe Mark intended to take over email, or render it useless. I think he’s made an interesting point that our dependence on email will fade over time. If history has taught us anything, it’s that change is the only constant.

    Email will become obsolete. When? No one knows; I do know however, that it’s just one efficient platform away. That is what phones did to telegrams, mobiles did to landlines and Facebook/Twitter did to social networking (and I mean the old fashioned gossip with your neighbor over the fence.)

    Is Facebook going to be that platform? I don’t have the slightest.. It is certain though that the time to round up communication in one seamless bundle. Platforms are out. Mashups are in. Do comment.

  2. I fail to understand what’s new here.
    gmail came with this great “conversation” view, and really fit topical conversations…and that will still be valid for a long time.
    This is just reorganizing conversation around participants …and i dont see the extraordinary appeal.

    Also, not tempted to see my emails spread among friends, friend of friends or friends that i dont really know. It will be just another privacy nightmare …

  3. Ronald Stepp

    I think it’s a bit egotistical of Mark Zuckerburg to want to take over all our messenging when we don’t even know where FB will be in 10 years.

    AOL? There was another company that thought it would be around forever.

    Ask yourself this, do we want to organise ALL of our communications online through ONE company? I really prefer that my communications be split up, each to its own best software, so if one goes bye bye, I just replace that single app with a different app.

  4. I’ve seen many companies try to build unified communication products of one type or another. They have all collapsed under their weight (Google Wave is the most recent example).

    A simple email product that does one thing well, and works with other mail clients, would have been pretty useful. Facebook messaging is web email, so if they’d just made it work more like Gmail, Yahoo mail, etc, that would have been just fine.

    Email works, and there is a plethora of programs designed to utilize it. I would have rather seen them leverage that than try to create an all in one product. Maybe I am missing something, but I think I’ve been to this movie before. Good for them for trying though not all of their products are going to be hits.

  5. rohitsift

    umm – seems like an overthought fb-wave. what is the one thing it does so well that i will be compelled to use it?

    maybe i am in a monday snark mode, but this is underwhelming from the fb boys.

  6. Sorry this is so long but I had to be thorough. think of my comment as a article within an article and its easier to swallow.

    I think this whole discussion really just begs the question what is the optimal way to communicate? is it text based or voice based, synchronous or asynchronous, one to one or one to many? I guess my answer would be all of the above.

    Just look at google wave, which I think was a real missed oppurtunity btw that had alot of potential. Whats cool about Google wave is that you can have an indefinite amount of participants engaging in seamless, not only text based, but multimedia based conversation/collaboration simultaneously. The pro here is that unlike in real life speech based conversation you dont have to wait and take turns to output your contribution which of course, slows everything down. Not to mention, the wait time could increase exponentially depending on how large the group is. can you imagine if only one person could comment on a thread at a time. who knows how long youd have to wait before you could actually contribute something. It would be like a press conference where everybody’s fighting to get there comment heard, usually to no avail.

    So while everybody making contributions simultaneously is in and of itself more efficient, The problem with all this is that unfortunately you cant listen to everybody all at once especially not while you are also texting/talking in order to make an informed reply. We’re not true multitaskers. at best we can switchtask but we cant parallell process that much information simultaneously. Thus, the classic input/output dichotomy.

    So the question then becomes; if everybody is talking/texting all at once, which again, is highly advantageous in and of itself at least in terms of time management, how do you make any sense of the resulting information overload? well what if whenever you wanted to switch from making a contribution to reading/listening to other peoples contributions, the real time conversation tree feed automatically gave you a qwiki text-to-speech playback summary with a google wave like thread visualization of all the previous contributions from whenever/wherever in the thread you last left off up to the most recent contribution or until you autopause the feed again by making another contribution.

    Its alot like what google wave playback already does but just more automatic and intuitive since its played as an audiovisual qwiki with the soothing (sexy?) speech to text voice acting as your personal tour guide through the chaotic conversation tree. You can take this a step further by throwing in some recommendation algorithims that prioritize which contributions get played back first based on whichever ones might be most relevant or interesting to you, e.g direct replies.

    speech to text and text to speech capabilities in this hypthetical communication/collaboration framework blur the distinction between voice calls and text messages. By being able to autoplay/pause live feeds based on whenever/wherever your composing your contribution, the system is both asynchronous and synchronous and it can involve an indefinite amount of people. So in conclusion the ideal future of communication is an amalgamation of text based/voice based, synchronous/ asynchronous, one to one/one to many capibilities. Lastly, you may be thinking this sounds great for teleconferencing but could this be done in person? Yes..

    lets say we finally get our heads up display contact lens and Im having a conversation about whatever with 50 other people, Im playing back everybodies comments one by one from the last place I left off/contributed. we all speak our contributions which then go from speech to text and back to speech again in my heads up display/earpiece so there is a transcript available if needed. While Im playing back the conversation the people that are still talking are muted and the person who im currently listening too is highlighted in my augmented reality hud and visca versa. Its the next best thing to being able to massively parallell process all output/input simultaneously.

  7. Can I just raise the point that Facebook doesn’t really know who my friends are unless I do a majority of my interaction with friends through Facebook?

    I think Facebook knows everyone I’ve ever known, but Gmail has a better idea of who I’m actually friends with and actually conduct business with.

    I guess as someone that doesn’t use Facebook very much, this doesn’t appeal to me.