Meet The New New Facebook

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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.

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