Facebook Updates Messaging Service, Not 'E-Mail Killer'

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Facebook users, a new e-mail address is heading your way.

As many expected, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a new messaging system at a San Francisco event today, but be careful before calling it "e-mail."

"We don't think a modern messaging system is going to be e-mail," Zuckerberg said.

Zuckerberg said current e-mail systems, which require "subject" lines and other formalities, have too much "weight and friction."

Facebook's new system takes the speed and ease of real time instant messaging and chat applications, but stores the conversation history and presents messages in a manner similar to an e-mail service.

As part of the new service, which will initially be invitation-only, Facebook users will receive an @Facebook.com e-mail address. But Zuckerberg emphasized that the new application is much more than e-mail.

"This is not an e-mail killer, this is a messaging system that includes e-mail as one part of it," he said.

Facebook Users Generate 4 Million Private Messages Daily

Zuckerberg said about 350 million Facebook members (out of the site's total population of 500 million members) use the current messaging features on Facebook. In total, he said, the site's users generate about 4 million private messages a day. The new system is meant to capitalize on that quickly growing aspect of the social networking service.

Taking its cue from high school students who already favor text messaging and Facebook chats over e-mail, Zuckerberg said the new service will be faster, more personalized and will encompass all kinds of communication enabled by Facebook (such as instant messages, text messages and Facebook messages).

Andrew Bosworth, a Facebook director of engineering who joined Zuckerberg for the announcement, said the new messaging service offers a three-tiered approach to e-mail inboxes.

At the top of the system is a "social inbox," which culls messages from Facebook friends only or friends of friends. A second inbox stores messages that are less important, but still valuable (for example, alumni newsletters, airfare alerts, messages from acquaintances and other kinds of correspondence). The third box is for junk mail.

Bosworth said friends and organizations who are not on Facebook will still be able to send Facebook users mail through their @Facebook.com accounts, but users will have the flexibility to restrict all mail to friends or friends of friends only (and have extraneous e-mail bounce out of the system).

Facebook Announces 'Modern Messaging System'

He also said Facebook users can manually adjust their mail settings so that non-Facebook friends can still send messages to their social inboxes. Users can block specific Facebook friends or friends of friends from sending e-mail to their social inbox.

"We don't expect anyone to wake up tomorrow and say 'I'm going to shut down my Yahoo mail account or Gmail account and switch exclusively to Facebook,'" Zuckerberg said. But he added that over the next few months or couple of years, more people might choose to communicate through Facebook e-mail because it's a simpler and faster application.

David Hallerman, an analyst with eMarketer, said he doesn't see Facebook replacing Gmail or other popular e-mail services.

"It's not going to be an alternative, it's going to be an add on," he said. "The trend for years now is for people to have multiple e-mail accounts for different uses and different purposes."

Facebook's tendency to "trip over its feet when it comes to privacy concerns" might be a sticking point in terms of how people use the new service, Hellerman said. But for a core group of active Facebook users he expects Facebook's mail system to become another way to keep in touch with friends and socialize online.

Is Facebook Maturing in Its Approach to Privacy?

From a marketing perspective, he said, the new service puts more pressure on brands and companies to create compelling fan pages and Facebook content so that messages from those corporate accounts make it into a user's top two inboxes and don't get sent straight to the junk e-mail box.

Others say the new Facebook messaging system effectively capitalizes on the trend toward a more text-centric way of communicating.

"A lot of times, e-mail isn't the communication method of choice," said Justin Smith, editor of the blog InsideFacebook.com.

He said e-mail will likely continue to be used for longer-form correspondence or formal, professional communication, but Facebook's new tools could help save people time as they plan social events or keep up with friends and family.

Augie Ray, an analyst with Forrester Research, said that Facebook's approach to its new mail service shows that the company is maturing in its approach to users' privacy.

Unlike Google and Yahoo, Facebook does not plan to target ads to users based on the content of their e-mail messages, he said.

"That's interesting because it demonstrates that Facebook continues to understand that there are concerns about how much information it has about people," he said.

Facebook Messaging Service Brings It in Line With Competition

Industry watchers have been circulating stories all year about a Facebook e-mail service, called "Project Titan." Pointing to MySpace Mail, which launched last summer, Adam Ostrow, editor-in-chief of Mashable, said an e-mail option would bring Facebook in line with its competition.

"I think Facebook is already the No. 1 time sink on the Web, and e-mail is right beneath it," he said. "If you combine those two, you're making Facebook into this portal that is one of those websites people will keep open all day."

Considering that Facebook has 500 million members worldwide, an e-mail program would instantaneously become a major force on the Web. Hotmail leads the Web in e-mail services with about 361.7 million users, Yahoo e-mail is a close second with 273 million users and Gmail has about 193 million worldwide users, according to ComScore data from September.

"Even if only a fraction of users start using the e-mail [service], they're already a huge player right off the bat," said Ostrow.