Facebook wants your help in killing off e-mail
By Kevin Kelleher. Kevin Kelleher is a guest contributor to Reuters.com, and opinions expressed are his own.
As expected, Zuckerberg unveiled on Monday Facebook’s answer to email in the age of Facebook. The answer is not so much a Facebook webmail account intended to lure users from Gmail or Yahoo Mail, but something much more encompassing: a “social inbox” that interweaves the most common forms of online communications – not just email but text messages, chat and Facebook messages. Social inbox does it all. What it doesn’t do, Zuckerberg insists, is kill email.
“A lot of press leading up to this announcement said this would be an email killer,” Zuckerberg said, looking for once at ease holding a microphone. “This is not an email killer. We don’t expect anyone to wake up tomorrow and say, “I am going to close down my yahoo account and switch to Facebook’.”
The key word there is “tomorrow.” Because, Zuckerberg went on to say, as more people grow accustomed to an inbox that moves seamlessly between chat and email and texting, they more they will realize they don’t need email so much. After all, all these modes of online communication have one thing in common – they are just so much slinging of words back and forth with the people you know.
Of all those modes, Zuckerberg maintained, email is the clunkiest. “It’s too formal. You have to think of the email address, you have to think of a subject line. You write, “Hey Mom”at the top. You write, “Love, Mark” to conclude it.”
Such is the nightmare from which Zuckerberg is desperately trying to wake up from – a hell where contacting your family is fraught with arcane formalities like saying hi or reminding someone that you love them, where the telegrammatic “c u soon” cannot possibly embed all the endearments needed to nurture a relationship, thereby opening up more time to feed the Farmville animals.
But the thing is, he’s probably right. Because the real genius of the way Facebook has designed its social inbox is that Facebook didn’t come up with the idea at all – he hit on it while listenting to high school students gripe about email being too slow during a family gathering at his girlfriend’s house. Not too slow to send across the Internet, but too slow to compose.
It’s often said that there is a gap between those over 30 and those under 30 when it comes to Facebook: The older generations don’t spend much time on Facebook as a rule, or avoid it entirely. People in their 20s who came of age when the Internet was around take to it more naturally. But there seems to be an even bigger gap between 20-somethings and teenagers. The latter group didn’t come of age with the Internet, they have always lived with it. It’s the water they swim in. They understand with an instinct that escapes even Mark Zuckerberg.
What Facebook has announced today is a communications platform designed to adapt to the way teenagers interact on the web. It is deliberately vague and open, so that Facebook engineers can study how people are using it, helping them tweak its future details into a more intuitive, immersive interface.
In other words, the web of the next few years is being designed, in its broadest strokes, by people still in high school and junior high school. For those who have argued that what Zuckerberg has achieved with Facebook is to recreate high school on the web, this is some pretty persuasive evidence.