Facebook's messaging: Rise of the IM generation

November 16, 2010: 8:44 AM ET

E-mail, text messages, instant messages -- Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to be the last mile between all the redundant systems and users' simple desire to see all their messages in one place.

By Chadwick Matlin, contributor

Mark Zuckerberg was just turning 13 when AOL Instant Messenger was released in 1997. Instant messaging was nothing new—AOL had allowed its users to chat with other subscribers since 1993, and ICQ had allowed anyone to talk to anyone since '96. AIM didn't so much break ground as it did break down walls. It was one of the first major signs that on the Internet, social networks can only succeed if they open up, and that for a new generation of web users, chat was just as crucial as email.

It's thirteen years later, and now the IM generation is in charge. On Monday Facebook showed what that means for the rest of us. Days in advance of Facebook's Monday press conference, the tech blogosphere was its usual babbling self, speculating on what a Facebook email system would look like, how it would beat Gmail at its own game, etc. Instead, Facebook sidestepped email entirely. It's overhauling its messaging system to make it more, well, message-centric. It's creating an AIM for a new decade.

Facebook has a problem with how we communicate. Namely, that it's through too many different media. On any given morning-after, we're sending panicked text messages to close friends about the person we hooked up with over text message, emailing our mothers to tell them about our night (right up until the moments of real interest), and sending stilted Facebook messages to the smoocher in question. (What we do with our phones and video chats are not of Facebook's concern. For now.)

Facebook's solution is to consolidate the whole thing. Which of course means they'll control it, too. It wants all of your messages to be fed through the same place—Facebook. Then they will be delivered to your friends' medium of choice—text, email, or their own Facebook accounts. (Assuming they've told Facebook to which device to send the message. Unclear if the grandparents of America will go that far.) Then, when your friend reads your Facebook message as a text, and texts you back, you'll receive it wherever you've told Facebook to deliver your messages. Imagine Mark Zuckerberg as your personal operator, waiting patiently by the switchboard.

At the press conference, Zuckerberg said, "This is not e-mail…We don't think that a modern messaging system is going to be e-mail." The message was clear. E-mail is for the olds. Messaging is for the youngs. But a real platform is inclsuive, bridging the divide between the two demographics. ┬áJust like AIM.

But that doesn't mean this new, blended system, can't look definitively modern. Gone are subject lines, those vestiges of a world that needed ten-word summaries of an email. These days, the messages themselves aren't longer than ten words. Gone is the inherent belief that you want anyone, anywhere to be able to contact you. Facebook is offering an option to reject mail—ahem, messages—from anyone who isn't your friend. And gone is the possibility that you may want something to be forgotten about. The web is an index of your life, and if you want to delete a chapter, you're going to have to purposely do it yourself.

This suggests Zuckerberg, as usual, has caught wind of an important social change before the rest of us are comfortable acknowledging it. We've become a society that's increasingly bifurcated between emailers and messagers. Or, to put it more simply, socials and drones. Note that even email is infused with Chat. Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo all feature an IM component. AOL's new "Project Phoenix" inbox has a "Quick Bar" that lets you email, IM, or text from the same space. This is social email.

None of that exists inside the office, drone email's only habitat. Here, subject lines, being available to strangers, and having the ability to scrub an ugly corporate episode from your hard drive are all still necessary. The office is mired in the way things used to be. Either because the business world isn't as social, or because it's not as innovative.

Facebook's new messaging system pays lip service to that at the same it's scoffing at it. By creating a platform that can still interact with email, Zuckerberg acknowledges that tearing down his forefathers' monuments will take time. But that doesn't mean he's not going to try to do it, one instant message at a time.

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