An explanatory Facebook video points out that many people prefer to communicate electronically in different ways; some use email, others prefer SMS, and still others use an instant messaging client. Facebook Messages aims to let you communicate with everyone in their preferred style, without having to remember who prefers which type of message.
To that end, everyone on Facebook who wants one will be able to get an @facebook.com email address. That address lets you communicate with those who prefer email, but it’s not a separate email system. If you’re on Facebook and logged into chat, the email will pop up as a message that you can read instantly; you’ll be able to respond to it as if it were a chat message, and your friend will receive it in the form of an email reply. Facebook calls this kind of blurring of the lines “seamless messaging.”
The format can even change as you need it to change. If you’re away from your PC and your friend sends a reply, it can be pushed to your phone via the Facebook iPhone application. Presumably Facebook will make this application compatible with smartphones using Android and other operating systems in the future.
Facebook Messages files conversations in one place, sorted by your friends and friends of friends. Everyone else goes into an “Other” folder. You’ll be able to move people from your “Other” folder into your regular folder; the example used in the video is if your grandmother sends you email to your Facebook address. You’ll also be able to block messages from anyone you want, and they won’t even appear in either folder.
As of this writing, if you want to use this service, you need to request an invitation. Reactions from early users, so far, have been mixed. It can be confusing to see all of your exchanges appearing in one giant thread. There also seem to be certain integration issues. For example, Sam Diaz of ZDNet noted that the SMS integration treats comments on status updates like any other message. “A comment on a status update doesn’t count as a ‘message’ and shouldn’t be arriving in my SMS inbox,” Diaz observed, and “wondered how bogged down my SMS inbox on my phone would become down the road.” And that’s the least of the confusion. PC World’s Sarah Purewal noted that it will be difficult to find old messages with Facebook Messages, given that nothing will have subject lines.
To be fair, though, Facebook seems to be getting some things right. Every part of the service is opt-in, and all of the elements of the registration are very easy to turn on and off. And the whole idea of an automatic messaging tool that lets you communicate seamlessly with everyone in your social network, in the formats they themselves prefer, should be a real time saver.
Make no mistake: in its current incarnation, Facebook Messages does not appear to be a “Gmail-killer.” But it does have potential, and the way it is set up seems to indicate that Facebook can learn, albeit slowly, from previous privacy-violating mistakes. We’ll see how it looks in a couple of months, after the company finishes the roll out. Meanwhile, if you want to try it out yourself, you can always request an invitation.