Facebook’s Messaging Platform: Color me skeptical

I’ve always believed in the nuance of mediums—that there are certain social norms and perceptions around SMS, e-mails, Twitter DMs and IMs that provide signalling for messaging.  In a way, the “brokenness” of messaging actually makes it better.  I’ll ping someone via IM with a “Sup”, but I’d never do that over email.  You don’t have to worry about not responding to an IM if you’re not there, but try ignoring a text message from a friend.  Where one person sees inefficiency, I see a communication spectrum. 

It’s not surprising to me that Facebook is looking for a solution for these sorts of problems—and is following Google’s Wave team down the same rabbit hole.  What I’m finding more and more is that there are a lot of very high-minded thinkers being hired by these big tech companies—people who look to build “beautiful products” but who don’t appreciate how much current solutions “just work” as broken as they are.  It’s the same people who thought video would replace texting because it’s technically superior—they never appreciated the fact that we were sitting around in our boxers or with zit cream on our faces and just didn’t want to be fully engaged from a medium perspective.

There are a lot of situations that I think Facebook is missing the subtle dynamics around with their new messaging platform.  What happens if I’m set to get things via my Facebook inbox, but someone really needs to text me because they’re running late?  Creating receiver centric messaging controls only works to an extent.  Having the sender share the burden of figuring out appropriate channels makes for a more efficient, but not perfect, world vs just assuming I want every message in one place and that’s the way it should be.

Part of the communication spectrum also relates to managing my contact list.  My AIM buddy list is organic, whereas my Facebook chat list just assumes that I have equal desire to IM with everyone that I want to be Facebook friends with.  This was the inherent problem with Friendfeed in my mind—turning all of the different interactions I had across apps into a one size fits all constant stream of everything from everyone.  I guess we know where that team’s thinking went. 

That’s the biggest problem with Facebook rolling out new features.  They created a set of expectations as I built my social graph for how I was going to be connected to someone when I friended them, and then they layered on a bunch of tools that don’t mesh with those expectations.  Once again, to get the most use out of a new Facebook product, I’m forced to categorize my friends, to roll back or adjust privacy settings, and perhaps to defriend some people entirely.  It’s a social graph bait and switch that is much more time consuming than just organically deciding who is in who is out when in a single use application like Foursquare, when you have a good idea of what you’re getting into.  I don’t know anyone who has categorized all their friends in Facebook for all the different ways in which you might interact with them—but it doesn’t matter because Facebook is sure to release some new feature that I’ll have to go back and change things on anyway.

The other missing piece behind this platform is understanding presence.  By creating a single inbox and notifications based around people versus mediums, you wind up with a routing problem.  When I’m on my phone, I get SMS notifications that popup.  E-mail notifications would be a nightmare, because I get too many.  When it’s all a Facebook inbox, how will it appropriately message me on my different devices in a useful way?

On the subject of the outside e-mail address @facebook.com, my first reaction was “What problem is this solving?”  Is this really just for Nana who only uses e-mail but not Facebook to be able to message me?  Who do Facebook users want messages from that isn’t on Facebook?   Will there be IMAP/POP access, or do I now need to check yet another inbox (assuming I can’t get rid of my Gmail and work e-mail)?  And bouncing messages not from your friends?   How is a person on the outside supposed to know what your privacy settings are?  Remember when people used to say that their e-mails got lost?  Back in like 1998?  Now, we have a reasonable assurance that if I e-mail someone, they got it.  With Facebook e-mails, we’re really not sure.  If we’re not friends on Facebook, is this note going to bounceback.  Am I going to get stuck in the “other” folder?  Do you even check that?  

Facebook wrote how, one day, you won’t have to use phone numbers to reach people—you’ll just type in names to connect to them.  Ever try searching for someone with a common name in Facebook?  Good luck with that. 

Also, without customary e-mail features like subjects and cc’s, is it reasonable to think that someone’s Facebook account will ever become their primary e-mail address?   This doesn’t seem like it will replace your Gmail account, and certainly not your work account.  So then, why again did I need another inbox? 

Conversation history by person really doesn’t make a lot of sense to me either.  I can already do that search in Gmail, so why then should I have the last 5 years of my friendship with someone, and all the various different conversations I’ve had with them, all in one long thread.  Aren’t I going to have to do a search to find something at some point anyway?  I’m certainly not going to page through 5 years of messages, right?

Thus far, Facebook messaging around their inbox has been a weak spot.  Anyone can message me from the outside as a default—once they’ve found my profile and they’re on Facebook, too.   You can invite a bunch of people to an event, and even if they don’t RSVP, you can message all invities.  Group messages default to reply all—that’s a nightmare even worse than e-mail.  However, it didn’t much matter because I didn’t use it all that much.  Now, it appears that communication is going to be a much more front and center experience—and a lot of these features now create work for me.  What’s worse is that there’s no e-mail ecosystem within Facebook to fix it.  I can use Xobni, Rapportive, etc. to make my outside e-mail experience better, but within Facebook, it is—at the moment—a closed ecosystem way short on features.  There’s  nothing that got announced as part of this new product development that made me say “Wow, that’s going to make my Facebook experience better.  I can’t wait for that.”  I haven’t played with it live yet, but I think this is going to be a big disappointment.