Will You Trust Facebook With Your E-Mail?

The social network plunges deep into your daily affairs

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"It's not e-mail" emphasized Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at this morning's product launch in San Francisco, it's a "modern messaging system." Whatever the 26-year-old wunderkind wants to call it,  e-mail is what's on everyone's mind in the tech-sphere today. Facebook's new product, which has been introduced to a small user base, aims to integrate instant messages, text messages and, yes, e-mail all into one place. The service will create a "conversation history" so that however you communicate with someone (e.g. SMS, IM, e-mail), it will be easily viewable in one place on your Facebook account. Users will receive an @facebook.com e-mail address and a "social in-box," which filters out spam and promotes messages from your personal friends.

The elephant in the room is whether or not users will trust Facebook with a service that so deeply immerses itself into individuals' daily affairs. Here's what techies are saying about the new service:

  • Everything Is in One Place, writes Sam Diaz at ZDNet:
At the heart of it all is the “social inbox,” a place where messages - again,not just email - are housed and filtered. Because Facebook already knows who your “friends” are, it can filter messages that it believes to be important to you. Everything else - not necessarily junk but maybe a newsletter or a bank statement or something from a family member who’s not on Facebook - goes into an “other” folder. ...

In terms of the seamless integration that Zuckerberg and team talked about, the idea is that users should be able to have an IM appear as an SMS or an SMS appear as an email, giving people a way to use the communication tool they prefer without worrying about how the recipient will see it or respond to it.

  • It All Comes Down to Trust, writes Mike Melanson at Read Write Web:

As with most discussions of Facebook these days, it all returns to privacy concerns and whether or not we trust the site with more and more of our information. During the announcement, alarm bells went off when one member of the audience asked if Facebook would be capturing information about non-Facebook users. "Yes," answered Zuckerberg, "in some way we do that."

...We'll have to see what happens next. Unlike other recent social media failures, this is an integral part of Facebook's system, so it won't be whether or not Facebook users use the system, but how they use it.

In many ways, what Facebook is trying to do seems a lot like Google’s ill-fated Wave service: namely, a single product that combines different forms of communication — email, instant messaging, live chat, and so on. The benefit for Facebook is that it already has 350 million users who are addicted (on some level at least) to the social network’s messaging system, and many of them are probably like the high-school students that Zuckerberg talked to, and don’t use email. A unified inbox could give Facebook an even tighter relationship with those users — particularly in mobile, as Om pointed out.

The most exciting prospect is the idea of a 'social inbox', which is basically an automatic email whitelist. Instead of being forced to hand-create lists of 'favourite' friends that skip your spam filters, Facebook's new messaging platform will automatically filter mail from your Facebook friends, your friends-of-friends.
While Facebook claims this isn't meant to kill e-mail clients, it's clear that e-mail providers are noticing. AOL, for one, pushed out a preview of its e-mail overhaul this weekend. Google, meanwhile, has been making one attempt after another to use Gmail and Gchat users' networks of contacts as the basis for next-generation messaging products, but it hasn't had much luck: Google Buzz was poorly received, and the more experimental Google Wave was shut down altogether after a few months.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.