When it comes to Facebook, you can count on one thing: Chief Executive Officer and Founder Mark Zuckerberg is not afraid to lose preconceived notions and instead move hundreds of millions of people in an entirely new direction. Sometimes his ideas work, which is one of the reasons why the Palo Alto (Calif.)-based social Web company has been able to constantly reinvent itself.
For its first three years of life, Facebook was merely a social network. Then it transformed itself in quick succession into a social Web platform and then into a social aggregator of the Web. On Monday, the company launched its "Social Inbox," a new kind of messaging system that is the first public manifestation of the new, new Facebook.
Facebook's latest core competency is communications—a way to become even more indispensable in our daily Web lives.
About four years ago, I wrote a column for Business 2.0 that essentially asked for what Facebook has done with this new social in-box:
E-mail ought to be reinvented to meet the needs of our always-connected lives. That means there's still a mega opportunity to reinvent the entire medium. E-mail has become a crutch, a way of passing the buck. In today's in-boxes, all e-mail messages are equal. In reality, of course, some are more equal than others. Spam, alerts, and calendar items all need to be treated separately. A smart in-box would—all in one interface—catch spam in junk filters, display the wine reminder in an IM, move company news to an RSS feed, and intelligently negotiate appointment requests with your calendar in the background.
Facebook: Our New "Interaction Hub?"
Facebook has not only reinvented the idea of the in-box, but has gone one better. It has done so by moving away from the traditional idea of e-mail. One of the reasons why Yahoo! and Google Mail have struggled to become entirely social is because it's hard to graft a social hierarchy on top of communication tools. If you look at Gmail, it has most of the elements that are available in the new social in-box, but they are all discrete and give the appearance of many different silos being cobbled together.
Facebook did the exact opposite by imagining e-mail as only a subset of what is, in reality, communication. SMS, Chat, Facebook messages, status updates, and e-mail is how Zuckerberg sees the world. With the address book under its control, Facebook is now looking to become the "interaction hub" for our post-broadband, always-on lives. Having trained nearly 350 million people to use its simple, stream-based in-box, Facebook has reinvented the "communication" experience.
Soon after the announcement, my Facebook account was upgraded. I have a new e-mail address; I have my in-box connected to the SMS on my mobile phone; and I have Facebook messages. The new in-box doesn't look any different from the old Facebook in-box, except now I can e-mail the outside world and folks can e-mail me directly. I can check a small box and send a message as an SMS, then receive replies.
All the "messages" look essentially the same. The social graph acts as a gatekeeper against spam—only friends or friends of friends can e-mail me. When others e-mail me, their e-mails will end up in a folder called (what else?): "Other." It is not e-mail as you and I know it. I like it. Will this be my main e-mail client or service? Not likely. But it has the utility to send messages beyond Facebook's walled garden.
Reaching for Real-World Intimacy
A few weeks ago, in a conversation with Slide CEO Max Levchin, I mused about how Facebook has essentially become the address book of our ever-connected lives. Thanks to seemingly frivolous tasks such as throwing sheep, poking people, or simply wishing others happy birthday, the company has built an effective, socially relevant, and meaningful map of relationships.
Facebook knows who our friends are, where we can find them, and how much we communicate with them. Its address book status will advance its ability to become a communication hub for all sort of services. When viewed from that perspective, the launch of Facebook's Social Inbox should not come as a surprise. It's a prescient move.
As a service, Facebook is amazingly effective when it focuses all its attention on the second order of friends—people you'd like to stay in touch with, but just don't have enough bandwidth (time) to manage. Those who most matter to you are infinitely intimate; as a result, you communicate with them via SMS, IM Chat, and voice. So far, this intimate communication has eluded Facebook. The launch of the new social in-box is a first step by Facebook to get a grip on real-world intimacy.
For an alternative take, check out Dan Gillmor's thoughtful and cautionary essay on the Social Inbox.
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