Just because the newly unveiled Facebook Messages is tackling the world of email doesn't mean it's inherently bad. There's a lot to like about their new communication paradigm — maybe even enough to get you to switch. Here's why.
Note: Facebook Messages' email integration is rolling out on an invite-only basis; you can sign up here.
Facebook isn't trying to reinvent the web, but rather take what already exists and make it better. The goal of their new messaging system is to unify the many modes of communication you already use so you don't have to jump between applications and devices to manage the different ways you and your friends like to communicate. Furthermore, Facebook wants to use what it already knows about you to help you sort through your messages, allowing you to spend more time dealing with the messages that are important to you and less time wading through emails, texts, and IMs that you don't care about.
One Centralised Messaging Hub
Facebook's aim is to centralize your text-based communication into a single location, much like Google Voice has done for voice communication. It doesn't really matter what device you're using or how you want to communicate because Facebook will continue the conversation through the most applicable channel. You can switch computers and devices or modes of communication and Facebook will adjust right along with you.
If you're sceptical of the usefulness of a centralised messaging hub, you don't need to look much further than your smart phone to see how well it can work. Smartphones are great communication tools because they're capable of combining all different types of communication (email, SMS, IM, voice calls/voicemail) into one easy-access location. Facebook's new messaging service is attempting to lift this paradigm but bring it not just to your smartphone but your desktop or laptop computer as well.
Facebook's goal in developing a more comprehensive messaging system is to improve the speed of communication between people. It's not that email itself is necessarily slow but that when you send a message you have to fill out a lot of information. In addition to the message you send, you're supposed to supply a subject, need to decide between To, CC and BCC, and make other little choices that add a little more formality and cognitive sludge that makes communicating slower. In his presentation of Facebook's new messaging service, Zuckerberg claimed that using Facebook messages or SMS is the preferred, faster way of communicating among young people. While email certainly still serves its purpose, when your goal is simply to have a conversation it can provide a larger set of features than you really need. Facebook aims to simplify your communication, removing any hurdles along the way to the send button, so your communication feels more like you're speaking to someone and less like you're writing a letter.
Highly Effective Message Filtering
Gmail's Priority Inbox uses your communication habits to judge which messages are more important than others and sorts those messages for you. Facebook attempts to do something similar, but it instead uses what it knows about your relationships with people. If you're honest with Facebook about who you're actually friends with and set your privacy settings to enable communication with the people you want, Facebook will provide you with a social inbox that contains emails, texts and instant messages with people you (presumably) want to communicate with. Facebook will also provide an inbox for messages with people who don't appear on your friends list (or are friends of your friends, depending on your privacy settings)
It Works if You Let It
As mentioned before, Facebook uses what it knows about you to make your communication more effective. If you friend a bunch of people you don't know, it definitely work work as well. If you want to make use of this simple but advanced communication system you have to work with it and not against it. It's easy to criticise how useless it can be if you don't use Facebook as it was intended. The idea behind Facebook is to better communicate with your friends and not several hundred people you don't know. If you're out friending just about everyone you can find, it might be time for a friend purge. (With the National Unfriend Day coming this Wednesday, you have an official excuse.) While you should be able to use Facebook the way you want to use Facebook you can. If you want Facebook to be an effective tool for communication, however, it will be only so much as you let it.
If I could limit myself to a single criticism of Facebook's rollout of new features it's that they are rarely opt-in. For example, your friends can just add you to Facebook Groups without your specific consent. You can, of course, remove yourself, but I find it frustrating that I'm required to monitor my Facebook account to ensure I'm not a part of a group I don't like. While I'd feel far more comfortable being opted-in to Facebook's new messaging service automatically, as it doesn't really change how others can affect my Facebook page, I'm happy to see that they're allowing us the choice of using this new feature (or not). With each rollout it seems Facebook is getting a little bit better at making their experience better for the end user. While they're certainly not perfect, the progression is encouraging.
I say this all not being a huge fan of Facebook. While I don't know if I'll end up using Facebook more for communication, I have to admit the new messaging features are pretty compelling. If these same features were in Gmail, would we feel it's a bit easier to get excited about them? What do you think of Facebook Messages? Good or bad, share what you think in the comments.