Facebook message service: Email for those who dislike email
Gmail can relax: Social network's new communication service does not threaten traditional email, for now. It isn't a bad service, quite the contrary, but it appeals to those who prefer simplicity over range of possibilities offered by email. Calcalist checks intriguing, talked-about service
The process of joining the service is particularly quick: A window on the Facebook user page invites the user to join the new message service, and after a few clicks and providing information like your cellular phone number in order to receive text messages (this part of the service is unavailable in Israel), you're set. All you have to do is click on the Messages link that appears under your profile picture, on the top right side of the screen. The messages icon will notify you when new messages are received, and clicking on it opens a small window displaying the latest messages received – similar to the previous system.
Every person using the service gets an email address identical to their Facebook username, followed by @facebook.com. But this isn't a standard email service, and whoever expects all of the familiar features will be disappointed. Messages ca not be put in folders or be tagged, there is no inbox or folders for sent items or deleted items. And items can't even be arranged in threads according to subject, like they are in Gmail.
Facebook clearly tried to simplify the service experience as much as possible, giving up a number of features that could be considered holy email penances. But because the service tries to be a quick, simple means of personal communication, and not necessarily an email service, the choices made seem to be right.
The service's main window displays a list of users with whom you have conduced conversations, and clicking on any of these contacts displays the history of your conversations, whether conducted via email, chat or text message. The list of people the user communicated with is displayed by chronological order, starting with the last message sent or received, with a distinction made between Messages and Others.
The Messages page displays conversations with other Facebook users (whether they are the user's Facebook friends or not), if they took place within the social network or through its email service. The Others page displays conversations received through non-Facebook email, as well as personal messages sent from groups or pages.
A user can view conversations that have not been read or conversations that have been sent to the archive through links hidden at the bottom of the Messages page. Each conversation displayed on this page includes the username of message participants, as well as the last message received. Two small icons on the right allow the user to transfer a message to the archive or to mark it as unread.
Clicking on each message displays the full conversation history with the user who sent it, and pictures in which that user is tagged appear on the right side of the screen. Transferring and receiving messages is an integral part of the conversation history, and at the bottom of each such window is a one-line text box. This line includes almost all the interface in the message service, without fonts, colors or text direction, without a subject, CC and BCC lines and even without a send button.
The interface also includes two icons, to attach a file or take a picture with a webcam, and a box allowing you to designate that the message be sent as a text message (as stated previously, this service is not yet available in Israel). At the top of the conversation page, under the Actions button, additional actions are available, such as forwarding specific messages within the conversation, archiving or deleting the conversation, marking it as spam or blocking the sender. Only in this window can messages be permanently deleted.
New messages can be created through the New Message icon, at the top of the service's main window. The window that opens is as Spartan as the rest of the service and includes only a “To” field, a text box to write the message, icons to attach a file or take a picture, send and cancel buttons. More than one recipient can be added, and if this is done a conversation history for the message will be created for each recipient. New participants can be added to the conversation history, which may not be done with personal conversation histories.
Perfect synergy? We'll have to wait and see
The service runs smoothly: After overcoming the initial shock created by the lack of menus and buttons familiar from the world of email, the system can be easily learned and used. Unlike Google Wave, which tried to make email faster and more updated, the experience here is much more accessible and inviting, and is less likely to deter the average user. The fact that the service is on a site that users spend a great deal of their time on will add to its chances of success.
The service, though, is not problem-free. One of the main problems is the clear preference to keep the conversation within Facebook. Unless a specific email address is written in, which is only possible when a new message is created, a sent message goes straight to the new communication center – without asking the user.
In addition, the social network makes it difficult to communicate with other email services. Messages that we received in our @facebook.com inbox from a user not affiliated with the social network arrived without the attachments. In a message that we sent, the Word document that we attached arrived blank. These problems did not occur in messages between users with the Facebook email address.
In announcing the launch of the new service, Mark Zuckerberg and his associates promised perfect synergy between all types of text communications. This declaration may have been too optimistic, especially when looking at the integration of Facebook chat. Messages sent to chat will appear in the conversation history, but if I choose to respond from there, my response will not appear in the sender's chat window. We can expect Facebook to do a better job in identifying where the conversation takes place, and knowing to display messages in all of the relevant places.
But these are relatively minor problems. The Facebook generation, which prefers its communication short and quick, will gladly adopt the service and will realize that it complements its use of the social network, adding a more personal and private dimension. These users, who were never big fans of email, are expected to progressively decrease their use of services like Gmail and Hotmail.
And what about your parents or office friends who like to send detailed, colorful emails? Or business users who conduct multiple, parallel conversations with the same person on different topics? They will, most likely, quickly find that the service does not suit their needs and will prefer the traditional email service.
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