Facebook Messages challenges traditional email & portals

Facebook today announced its revamped Facebook Messages. But this is far more than than launching facebook.com emails or building a “Gmail killer”. After all, running a real email platform is fraught with security and spam risks.

What Facebook realized was that the world didn’t need another email platform but a better, more simple way to stay connected with the people who count the most in our lives – our friends. So Facebook boils messages down to just two things: friends and their messages. There is a simple idea behind this approach to communications:

Friends define priority.

There are three ways this vision is achieved by Facebook Messages:

1) Seamless messaging with messaging interoperability. The big news on the surface is that people will have an email address, me@facebook.com based on their registered Facebook username. In addition, users will finally be able to send emails to people outside of Facebook as messages will be fully interoperable with any email system. Even IMAP will be supported (eventually) so you can see your Facebook messages in your favorite client.

Just as important is what Facebook Messages does not do. It won’t be a replacement for regular email because many typical features – like cc’ing and bcc’ing – are missing. That’s because friend communications don’t typically require that. Attachments are taken care of in the form of links, photos, video attachments. Again, Facebook simplified the communications platform, including the fewest number of features needed to stay in touch with friends.

It’s basically chat with email interoperability added in.

But the biggest feature for me will be the early integration of chat, text, and email messages from anyone into one place.  I can already use Facebook Chat with people outside of Facebook as it’s interoperable with major platforms like Jabber and AIM. But now if a friend sends me a message and I’m signed into Facebook, the system will deliver it as a chat as it recognizes we can talk in real time. Ditto with text messages from friends – by linking my Facebook account to my mobile number I already get messages from Facebook friends.

Messages from my friends will thus begin to be centralized into one place, no matter where they originate. My friends and I won’t have to know or worry about where we each are – Facebook will figure it out. I’ll finally be able to say good-bye to that mental look-up table that I use to figure out the best way to reach someone.

So I can start having a chat with a friend but if they go offline, my message will still be captured in the inbox. Companies like Cisco and Microsoft for companies typically provide this approach to “unified communications”. Today, Google comes close to doing this for me with email, Chat, and Google Voice. Note that the exception to Facebook is voice communications, which I expect will be the next phase of innovation.

2) Friend-based conversations and archives. One outcome of unified communications is that I can now see all of the conversations I’ve had with a friend in one place. This is similar to the conversation threading that was a key differentiator for Gmail – except now I can see the entire history of messages I’ve had with a friend. This reflects the most common type of search I do on Gmail today – by a person’s name.

3) A real social inbox with friends as the filter. Facebook believes that messages from your friends should get priority treatment – and not appear between Amazon order confirmations and Groupon offers. In the new Facebook Inbox, there will be two folders – conversations with Friends and Other for everything else. The Other folder contains all bulk emails from companies, fan pages, notifications, etc. Gmail’s Priority Inbox has a similar approach, but it uses complex algorithms to figure what’s priority.

Facebook uses just one – that the messages are from Facebook friends. I expect that there will be refinements to this in the future, such as the ability to have separate folders for different lists of friends, but for now, it’s introducing this new metaphor in a simple, powerful way.



Implications of Facebook Messages

There are four major implications I anticipate will happen because of Facebook Messages.

– Migration away from traditional email starts a new portal war. It’s already a trend – communications is diversifying away from email, supplemented by chat, text, Skype, Twitter, Yammer, Chatter, and of course, Facebook. In effect, email is being nibbled into lower usage. Users who already center their communications on Facebook will migrate even more of their communications to Facebook. They won’t give up their Gmail, Yahoo, and AOL accounts, but they rely on them less and less as messaging shifts.

So today’s numbers look like this: 350 million active Facebook Messages users (not everyone on Facebook uses Messages. That’s compared to 363 million Hotmail users, 303 million Yahoo Mail users, and 171 million Gmail users.

The impact is significant. As one of the “front doors” for traditional portals, email is a mainstay as a starting point and locks in many users reluctant to change. It’s estimated that 45% of AOL’s network traffic comes from AOL Mail (AOL just announced an update).

My colleague, Jeremiah Owyang has written about the potential for email providers to become instant social networks (here and here). But attempts to make email inboxes social will face significant challenges. The problem is an email address and messages don’t denote a relationship or priority — even with an understanding of the people you email the most frequently. Without that social data, the billions of social connections lack context.

But more importantly, without the context of the social interactions that take place very day on Facebook chat, and other platforms, email alone simply falls short. The current spat between Google and Facebook over email address portability is just the beginning of this new portal war. But the war isn’t going to be just over the raw social data. Rather, it’s going to be a rush to see who can capture more of the overall consumer communications and that requires that they be more open in the infrastructure to integrate with other platforms.

Data, Advertising, and Privacy

By offering unified communications in one place, Facebook provides an elegant way to consolidate everything in one place. That also means that Facebook ends up being the beneficiary of capturing all of those interactions. The irony is that the ability of Facebook Messages to integrate and unify the messages means that it will also track everything that people share with each other.

Facebook already very effectively mines profile data to better place ads, but limits the data used to what the user already enters on their profiles. In the future, Facebook could (and I emphasize could) understand when people are asking for advice, and if they acted on it and thus mapping influence. While Facebook has not plans to do this in the future, privacy advocates are standing at the ready to understand how that data will be used.

The Importance of Good Friend Management

The underlying assumption to Facebook Messages is that you have a real relationship with your Friends. I expect that Facebook will keep refining how messages are prioritized within the Friends inbox (for example with Friend Lists, recency of interactions), but it highlights the importance of being someone’s friend in the first place

For example, if you want to gain access to a key person, becoming their friend now has tremendous value as it gets priority treatment. Anyone can send an email to charleneli@facebook.com, but it won’t reach my prioritized inbox unless you’re my friend.

But the opposite issue also arises. I may want to elevate and demote existing relationships to have higher/lower priority. Andrew Bosworth, the director of engineering on the project, explained that Facebook assumes that the friendships are “meaningful” and thus messages from them deserve to be elevated to this level. But in many ways, this goes against the appeal of Facebook for many people, which is to create casual connections with people they went to school with or worked with in the past.

At some point, I expect that Facebook will allow us to more accurately map out relationships in their many dimensions, behind the cumbersome friend lists that exist today. They will tap their excellent “friend algorithm”

Facebook Redefined

For me, today represents the day when Facebook truly becomes a portal on the level of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL. It’s escaped the bounds of being just another social network and is creating a nexus for lasting relationships. By centering communications on friends – rather than features and a simple email address – Facebook is creating a special kind of lock-in unavailable to other portals, your friends.

15 thoughts on “Facebook Messages challenges traditional email & portals”

  1. I think you hit the sweetspot with this post. Email is hard to make social, cause the context is very difficult to define. Facebook already has that social context and is now putting a messaging layer on top of that.
    Makes ALOT of sense if you think about it.
    Should be very interesting to see how Google, MS and Yahoo are going to respond to this.

  2. Great post Charlene, FB is truly moving everyone forward. Apple-like decisions they have made, for example, to trim away CC/BCC are what I think we will look back at years from now as really changing the way we use communications in general, not only email & messaging.

    I think the more open by default Google could socialize Gmail by taking the friend promotion/demotion idea you mention and create some kid of standard to exchange the results of your up/down ratings, a new layer of mail protocol.

  3. Many corporations block Facebook and other Social Media sites during work. I wonder what effect that may have on adoption.

    Am somewhat concerned that after the newness wears off that what Facebook introduced is more like “yet another inbox to check” . Think of people who continue using email addresses years old- will they switch to Facebook email or use it given that their company may block it?

    My spam filters on Gmail aren’t good – they’re great. Don’t see a place where Facebook mail could improve on Spam.

    Google’s biggest and most public flops have been around changing email . Maybe Facebook will succeed where Google failed (Wave).

  4. Sorry, I disagree.

    It’s merely this analogy – I communicate in a social setting but prefer to talk only with those people I know and they are grouped like small islands. I speak loudly, nobody can hear it except intended reciever and upon all that, I can at the same time communicate with my brother who’s outdoor (:

  5. Great thoughts, and i agree with Wayne and Wanjiru that FB’s ability to protect privacy and prevent spam will be the difference between success and failure. FB is already pretty spammy (Mafia Wars/Farmville et. al) so that may be it’s Achilles heel.
    The other factor is every site or service that has been touted as the ultimate, unconquerable community builder– Compuserve, Usenet, Six Degrees, AOL, Second Life, Friendster, MySpace–was eventually toppled by a new technology or by human failure.
    And like the others, within 5 years Facebook will be displaced by an even better idea; the real question is what is that new technology, and what can we do now to be ready to make money from it when it arrives?

  6. Thanks for writing this post Charlene. I agree with you on your analysis.

    I also think it’s critical to consider how the next generation is growing up in a 24-7 connected world (as you’ve discussed before) and that their norms and expectations just don’t work with email’s asynchronous-by-design behavior.

    For more, see Pew’s recent report:


    If we changed the form factor of email to look like this:

    Recipients: [ ]
    Message: [ ]

    …we’d be closer to how people use chat and IM and we’d like change the style of conversation that occurs.

    With sites like https://three.sentenc.es, evidence suggests that many of us struggle with email overload. As a result, we just don’t have enough time in the day to respond to longer messages with long messages. Restricting message content with Twitter-like brevity is the only way to multiplex our communications without having to reduce the number of people with whom we interact on a regular basis.

    I think this is Facebook’s realization, and the key insight that drove the design of Facebook Messaging.

    This new modality — of “continuous partial conversations” — means that we can keep talking even if we change devices or are in a computing mode that’s not synchronized with our friends.

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