Facebook: The Message is the Medium

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I've been resisting writing about Facebook Messages, the new universal text-chat-email-whatever inbox Facebook unveiled this week. I wanted to get my hands on it and take it for a test drive before making pronouncements about its value or viability. A quaint concept in this era of blog first and ask questions later, I know. But I put in my polite requests for a test account to Facebook PR and got bupkis in return. I went to the Facebook Messages page and requested an invitation; I got a note back saying "You will receive an invitation soon." So now I'm left waiting to find out how Facebook defines "soon."

(One thing that drives me nuts about Facebook is how they announce products long before they're available, then distribute them in seemingly random dribs and drabs to different groups of users over several weeks. I find that irritating. Maybe it's just my inescapably cranky nature.)

[ See also: How to avoid being drunk and disorderly on Facebook ]

So: Facebook Messages. The big news here is that Facebook is giving all of its users an @facebook.com email address, only it's not really an email address (as they keep insisting), because a) it works for SMS and chat as well as email messages, and 2) there aren't the usual To:, cc:, or subject fields you have with email, which Facebook apparently sees as barriers to conversation. So a conversation can start on email, migrate to chat, continue on SMS, go back to email, and it's all in your "social inbox," neatly threaded and organized by the person you're communicating with.

Another way to put this: Facebook wants everyone to communicate the way teenagers do now - a seemingly endless stream of telegraphic, almost hieroglyphic messages, complete with an ever-shifting series of ridiculous acronyms. (Cue Mr. Cranky again.)

The other big concept behind Messages is prioritization; as with Gmail, you have two inboxes -- one containing messages from people in your friends posse, the other from the rest of humanity, with the friends' messages getting top billing. The alleged benefit here: All the email you'd want to read with none of the nasty spam.

Of course, I could be completely, utterly, mind bendingly wrong here, because all I have to go on is what Facebook said on Monday (see invitation, lack of, above), plus the somewhat scant materials and the FAQ they've placed online.

The idea of getting all your messages in one place seems sound, and the notion of one unified conversation extending across all forms of communications media for weeks, months, or years sounds kind of cool.

The thing is, though, my conversations don't work that way, and I'm not sure they should. I have conversations on SMS. I have them on Twitter. I have them on email. I have them on Skype. Occasionally I have them on Facebook, either via the comments to a post or Facebook's internal email system. But I don't have conversations that jump from SMS to Twitter to Skype to Facebook and back. They're all self contained.

Take my wife (please). We are constantly chatting via Skype at various points during the day. Sometimes we text each others' cells. We exchange email (though far less than we used to). We have used a variety of software products and Web sites to collaborate on projects, all of which ultimately drive me nuts. Sometimes we even speak to each other, when there's simply no other recourse or it's just too complicated to type. But about 75 percent of our interactions occur digitally in one form or another - almost none of them on Facebook.

In the new Messages scheme, all of these conversations would occur on Facebook. I'm not sure I see that happening. In part because the idea of having Facebook in control of all my messages makes me uneasy. It's not merely that I don't trust Facebook to keep my conversations private and secure (and I don't); it's also that I'm not convinced it's competent enough to do that, given how often Facebook often doesn't seem to know what it is doing until somebody else points it out (see "Facebook's ID-gate privacy breach: Why it matters").

It's not like Facebook has proven itself impervious to phishing scams and malware attacks; rather the opposite. So it's a bit like your teenage son wrapping the family station wagon around a pole and then demanding the keys to the Porsche.

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