Facebook: The Message is the medium

Facebook Messages is trying to change how we communicate, for better or worse (and probably both).

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.

I’m also naturally suspicious. Why does Facebook want all my conversations? What are they planning to do with them? Will they be displaying ads keyed to the content of my emails/chats/texts, as Gmail does? Or will this information be feeding into some kind of behavioral profile? (Cue Mr. Paranoid.)

My other big hesitation is that, for this to work, it appears I’d have to change my habits substantially. I’d have to drop all my other forms of communication and standardize on my @facebook account, and so would everyone who communicates with me. (Unless I am totally misunderstanding how this works.) In general, products that rely on people radically changing their natural behavior tend to fail, unless the benefits from that change are overwhelming and obvious. I don’t see that here.

Then there’s that bit about email – sorry, message -- prioritization. Here again it seems like Facebook is making the broad and most likely inaccurate assumption that the people in your friends list are actually your friends, as that word has traditionally been defined. As I’ve written elsewhere (“Facebook + Bing: The good, the bad, & the incontinent”), my Facebook posse is a dog’s breakfast – real friends and family members mixed in amongst casual acquaintances, professional colleagues, a mess of social media/PR types, fans of my writing, likely stalkers, and a smattering of bikini models (just because). So prioritizing mail from this crew is only marginally better than the random spew that fills my inbox every day already. I can’t believe I’m alone in this.

Do I sound underwhelmed by Messages? I do. And the security alarums that people like Sophos’s Graham Cluely are sounding don’t make me any more sanguine about it. Per Graham:

The new features do increase the attack surface of the Facebook platform, and make the accounts of users all the more alluring for cybercriminals to break into….Facebook accounts will now be linked with many more people in your social circle - opening up new opportunities for identity fraudsters to launch attacks. Furthermore, because Facebook will be storing a complete archive of all of your communications with one person - there will be concerns as to how such data could be misused if it fell into the wrong hands….Facebook users mustn't fool themselves into believing that they are safe as long as they only trust the messages sent to them by their Facebook friends, as those accounts can still be compromised by malicious hackers.

Still, I’m willing to give it a shot – assuming I ever get the chance to.

ITworld TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan would love an invitation to Facebook Messages if you’ve got one to spare. Visit his snarky humor site eSarcasm (Geek Humor Gone Wild) or follow him on Twitter:@tynan_on_tech.

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