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With 'Messages,' Facebook tries to run the switchboard

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 7:31 PM

Facebook isn't just introducing an e-mail service - it's setting its ambitions a lot higher than that.

At an event Monday in San Francisco, founder Mark Zuckerberg introduced a major upgrade to the social network's messaging system, now called "Messages," that's designed to fold in other, older forms of electronic text communication: chat, e-mail and SMS.

Yes, you can have a facebook.com e-mail address, based on the username you choose for your profile on the site. But the idea is not just to give you yet another e-mail account, but to unify the ways you can converse with other Facebook users and flatten some perceived hang-ups with e-mail.

To explain that, Zuckerberg related how a group of high school students told him that "we don't really use e-mail." Why? "It's too slow," he quoted them as saying. It didn't have the seamless back-and-forth and near-instant delivery of text messaging.

"We don't think a modern messaging system is going to be e-mail," Zuckerberg said. The Palo Alto, Calif., company's new messaging system was built around three features. A company blog post explains each: "Seamless Messaging" (meaning a unified view of your e-mail, Facebook messages and texts), "Conversation History" (allowing you to trace a lifelong conversation across those different channels) and "Social Inbox" (using Facebook's knowledge of who your friends are to filter your incoming traffic).

The idea is that Facebook will act as a switchboard, routing incoming and outgoing messages - it already knows your other e-mail addresses and your mobile phone number as well as the corresponding contact info for your friends. It's promising access via the IMAP standard, which would let you download your messages in any e-mail program. But for now it's a feature that mainly lives on Facebook's own site and its mobile applications, if you've been invited to try it at the start of what Facebook says will be a slow rollout.

Zuckerberg suggested the site wasn't out to replace e-mail, noting that in a year or two, at best, some Facebook users would decide that "maybe e-mail isn't as important as it was before."

But as somebody who's been using e-mail since 1994, I can't take this move lightly. In suggesting that its 500 million-plus users (about 350 million of whom use its existing messaging system) centralize their online correspondence through its own service, Facebook would inevitably displace one of the oldest standards on the Internet. (Disclosure: Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook's board of directors.)

My first take on the new uber-messaging system is that, inside Facebook, it looks much like the old one: a list of messages grouped into threads based on who started them. And, as before, there's no support for importing or merging messages from other mail accounts. Most other Web-mail services offer such a feature - AOL's, just relaunched as an invitation-only beta, has presets for pulling in e-mail from Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo Mail accounts - but Facebook leaves that out.

The new messaging system looks most promising in its ability to integrate your friends list. Where other e-mail services have to guess which messages deserve priority, Facebook knows - in theory - who you want to hear from most. (In practice, the large number of casual acquaintances on many Facebook friends lists may prevent this from working well.)

That friends-list connection also lets Facebook easily provide an option that requires a lot of setup work elsewhere: only letting friends send you mail.

Facebook weaves its own chat fairly tightly into Messages - maybe too well. Clicking on a person's name to open a chat session now yields not just prior chat conversations but e-mails sent back and forth earlier.

To do the same with texting, however, requires using Facebook as a front end for your carrier's texting service. If you want to text using your phone's regular SMS function but have Messages incorporate that into your ongoing conversation with a friend, you have to relay the message through Facebook using a special syntax.

Compared with most new mail programs, Messages looks weak. You can't flag messages for follow-up or file them in separate folders; like Gmail in its earliest state, Messages only lets you search through them, mark them as read or unread, and archive them out of sight. It displays attached Microsoft Office files through Microsoft's new, free Web-based Office apps, but an attempt to read one Word document yielded a useless error message blaming an "unexpected error."

The lack of subject lines - what Zuckerberg termed a feature - really kills me. Like a lot of journalists, I take great professional pride in writing clever headlines, and the subject line of an e-mail message is a terrific outlet for that sort of compressed prose. Now Facebook wants to abolish that altogether? No, thank you.

The popularity of Facebook presents a separate creativity issue: Finding a username that looks professional and identifies you as yourself to the shrinking majority of Internet users not on the site. Internet users of a certain age: Remember trying to come up with smart-looking screen name on AOL shorter than 10 characters? Facebook doesn't have that strict character count, but it does have far more people competing in its namespace than AOL ever did.

I don't see Messages getting anywhere among intensive e-mail users, the kind who have stored messages from multiple old accounts saved in one program. But I do see this hammering another nail into the coffin of the limited, non-portable mail accounts parceled out by most consumer Internet providers.

Or, at least, Messages will when it's more widely available. For now, it's invite-only - and each person invited to try it only has a limited number of invitations to share. As I have already sent out my two invites, you'll have to stick with your regular e-mail account to send me your feedback.

Living with technology, or trying to? Read more at voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.

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