Centre for Internet & Society

Earlier this week, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, had a simple message to the world: email is outdated since it can no longer handle the sort of digital communication that we’ve got used to. Facebook Messages, which integrates email, SMS, instant messaging and social networking, is the way forward, he claimed.

Zuckerberg isn’t the first one to point out the limitations of email. Last year Google too said that email, a technology invented in the ’60s, was not equipped to serve our current needs. “Wave is what email would look like if it were invented today,” Google proclaimed during the launch of Google Wave.

As it turned out, Wave was a great product but served an entirely different purpose — collaboration. While this made sense at the enterprise level, it didn’t offer much added value to email users engaging in one-to-one conversations. Google Wave today is defunct since users didn’t buy into Google’s argument. Will Facebook Messages suffer the same fate?

The answer depends a lot on whether users face the problem that Zuckerberg claims they do. “A lot of people are trying to solve the problem of email. But I don’t know what that problem is,” says Mahesh Murthy, CEO, Pinstorm, a digital marketing agency. According to Murthy, there are three main issues with email: storage space, spam filtering and prioritising messages. And modern email services such as Gmail have evolved to address these concerns.

Facebook obviously thinks otherwise. According to the company we need one inbox for all our digital communication, which includes emails, chats and SMS. Second, messages from your Facebook contacts will be considered more important and will go into Social Inbox. All other messages will go into a separate folder. Third, messages will be threaded according to people and not subject lines as is the case with Gmail and other email services.

According to Gaurav Mishra, head, social media practise, MS&L Group, these are compelling reasons to start using Facebook Messages. But enough to ditch your email account? Not quite, say experts.

“Integration is a marketing myth,” says Nishant Shah, director, Centre for Internet and Society, a Bangalore-based research organisation, “Many of us like to keep our information in different silos. We have heard of young people getting fired from their jobs because they were not able to keep personal information compartmentalised.”

Secondly, giving greater priority to messages from people in your contact list may be misplaced. “The nature of conversation on Facebook is casual and the criticality of a message and hence the need for an immediate response may not be that high,” points out Murthy. An email from, say, a client or a prospective recruiter who may not be on your friends list, may be more critical.

There’s no doubting that Facebook Messages could change the way we conduct our casual conversations. But email serves basic and universal needs. For example, while introducing the new service, Zuckerberg pointed out how school kids felt email was too slow. According to Shah, however, it is important to understand what the kids found email slow for. A movie plan can be made quicker through SMS, but the same kids might submit their assignments via email.

Of course, Zuckerberg has not claimed that Facebook Messages will be an email — or more specifically Gmail — killer. But Facebook’s PR machinery would have known how the media would react. By undermining the very concept of email — one of Google’s strongest products — Facebook has managed to make Google look like the hero of yesteryears.

Analysts agree that Facebook Messages is really about retaining users on its website — if Facebook can give its users a reason to spend more time on its website rather than that of an email service, it can serve more ads. “It is about economics. But Facebook is trying to turn it into a cultural argument,” says Shah.

Still, one thing is certain; Facebook Messages will not suffer the same fate as Google Wave, partly because it is simply an update (and a rather good one) to an existing feature within Facebook. But it is far from a replacement to email. As Mishra puts it, “I will not close down my existing email ids. But I will start using Facebook to message my relatives and friends. It is going to be the future of messaging, not the future of email.”

Read the original in DNA

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