Facebook's Email Project

The social media rumor mills have been abuzz with speculation on a soon-to-be released replacement for the built-in Facebook messenger functionality–namely a full blown email service. This isn’t terribly surprising news, is a pretty logical next step for the 6-year old company, and if it launches as expected, it’ll automatically give email accounts to 400+ million people worldwide. ¬†A move like that and suddenly Facebook is the #1 email provider in the world. I don’t know about you, but that seems just a little bit scary.

For one thing, Facebook doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record when it comes to privacy protection. Does the word “Beacon” ring a bell with anyone? And how long has it been since Facebook changed it’s Terms of Service amidst customer outrage over the fact that it indicated you couldn’t remove your personal data from Facebook’s servers? Sure, they backpedaled pretty fast on that one and had end-users critique, choose, and proof a new version of the TOS, but the damage was done. Just this year Facebook has already completely revised it’s privacy controls with defaults that leave users open to just about anything.¬†Ultimately, while the new control are simpler, they seem to provide less control overall. We’ll call this Strike One.

Another area that makes me uneasy is that of reliability and performance. I can’t even count the number of times when I’ve gotten one of those mysterious “An unknown error has occurred” messages while doing something completely innocuous on the site. Just the other day, I was uploading a few photos using the brand new photo uploader plugin. After selecting the photos I wanted and starting the process, I got a message that my photos would upload in the background and that in a few seconds I’d be taken back to the homepage. Sounded okay to me–but after ten minutes of no photos showing up in the album, I decided something went wrong and I needed to try again. The second attempt appeared successful and nothing seemed amiss, but the very next day, I found that all of my uploaded photos had been duplicated within the album. Yet another headache. All of that said and I haven’t even mentioned the numerous times that links or buttons don’t seem to do anything, do something strange, or have a delayed response of 30 seconds or more. Doesn’t seem like the type of application I typically use on a daily basis–especially when my connection runs at 3mbps. Google gets far more traffic than Facebook does each day, yet I never experience any of these types of errors when searching for, say, chicken pot pie recipes. Let’s just admit the fact that this is another huge problem and call it Strike Two.

The last point I’ll make involves the numerous interface changes that have occurred over the past year. First, we got a new site design that was heavily criticized by users. Next, Facebook deployed a new profile design which would supposedly make things simpler. Users cried foul. Then the homepage and feed interfaces changed to the point where most people sat scratching their heads wondering how in the world it worked. They also undoubtedly spend countless hours trying to determine how the information was updated, how Facebook deemed certain information relevant, and so on. And to top it off, just this past Friday, Facebook changed the global site navigation, notification system, and news feeds all over again. This update hasn’t yet been rolled out to all users, so I haven’t had the chance to test it. The screenshots look nice, but…again I’ve been hearing negative comments from users just the same. Now, to be fair, many people just don’t appreciate change and become immediately outraged when something becomes unfamiliar to them. But it seems to me like Facebook should do a better job of reassuring the multitudes of their continued dedication to providing an intuitive user experience. I haven’t seen any good PR addressing the concerns of users, which, in my ever so humble opinion is a huge mistake. However, because it’s hard to say whether or not what we have now is better than what we all used a year ago, I’ll call this Strike Two-and-a-half.

So…what about Facebook Email (Or could it perhaps be called “femail“)? This really could end up being a Strike Three scenario. I really don’t know what’s going to become of it and whether users will embrace it or not, but I’d say in order for it to be a truly viable, useful, and helpful service, Facebook will need to address all of the above considerations. It must be secure and free from breaches of privacy (within norms of traditional email). It must be stable and robust, allowing users to check their email without issue 24/7. It must have a good, usable, uncluttered interface. It must be able to be used as a standalone email platform with no proprietary ties to Facebook itself, if that’s what the user wants. And finally, it must be open. It needs to support traditional protocols like POP, IMAP, and SMTP. It needs to use SSL. It must support industry standard mail clients. I think that it’s fate will ultimately be decided based on consumer satisfaction. That being said, if I were a corporation, I think I would automatically block all email coming from that system without thinking twice. Mixing business and pleasure can be dangerous enough as it is, I can only imagine what might happen if you start mixing business and Facebook. Can anyone spell “disaster?” I think I’ll sit this one out and see what happens, but even then I’m in no hurry to leave Gmail’s spectacular service for both personal and business accounts.

Well, what do you think? Will Facebook actually roll out an email service? Will it catch on? Will you use it? The comments are open. Post your thoughts!

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