Can the masses keep up with Zuckerberg?
That’s what some are calling Facebook’s new messaging system, which was revealed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Monday. Not that Zuckerberg himself said that.
“This is not an e-mail killer,” Zuckerberg said during the announcement. “This is a messaging system that includes e-mail as one part of it.”
And in many ways, Facebook Messages doesn’t seem to want to replace e-mail at all. Sure, it has an e-mail client — Facebook users will eventually be offered an
“@facebook.com” address, if they choose to have one — but at first glance it seems that Messages will simply be a better, more integrated way to communicate with your friends.
Text messages will rub shoulders with chat instant messages alongside e-mails, providing a seamless way to access all three without constantly switching between programs and clients.
So, there is no Gmail killer after all.
Zuckerberg, however, didn’t leave it at that. While stating it wasn’t about abolishing e-mail, he added another nugget of insight: “We don’t think a modern messaging system is going to be e-mail,” he said.
And although it might have just been subtext, it was this philosophy that reigned supreme in the announcement of the new system. Seemingly, Facebook isn’t out to fight traditional e-mail — instead, it’s saying that e-mail is slowly but surely receding to that shadowy technology graveyard where floppy disks and Windows Me reside.
This attitude is what led Facebook to apply some drastic changes to its e-mail client within the new messaging system. Exhibit A: no more subject lines. Exhibit B: no more blind carbon copies.
It’s hard to imagine e-mails being sent without subject lines, but in the eyes of Facebook, it’s simply not necessary. According to Zuckerberg, the future of messaging is defined by seven characteristics: seamless, informal, immediate, personal, simple, minimal and short.
Well, at least no one can claim that Facebook isn’t ambitious. Although the new system might be a very large step forward for web-based communications, it’s difficult to say if it really is the move that Zuckerberg wants it to be.
In a way, Zuckerberg’s vision of the future seems mildly utopian: Imagine a world where both bosses and friends and clients and partners communicate on the same platform, informally and in real time. It’s certainly optimistic, but Facebook might be making a critical error somewhere along the line in assuming that people are going to be able to fit into such a system.
After all, these are the same people that forced Google to ditch its “save everything, don’t delete, just search” approach with Gmail. With pressure from the public, a prominent delete button was finally added at a later date.
As for e-mail without subject lines? The public couldn’t even handle Gmail’s attempt to remove folder-based organization. Facebook intends on organizing all messages around the sender. This obviously will pay dividends in terms of communication with friends — say, going back-and-forth about plans for the weekend — but it’s hard to imagine how it’s logical in any other sense.
Technology of the future? Maybe, but not the near future.
One should also consider the issues with imagining a world where savvy workplace bosses and interns can interact over social media. For all of Facebook’s lofty goals, Zuckerberg has potentially squandered the possibilities of making Facebook more appealing to the old-school, double Windsor knot types.
Yes, Facebook is becoming more popular with older, more professional audiences, but the fact of the matter is that social media has always been the jungle of the young.
Zuckerberg’s idealistic view of “Facebook for all” is contradicted by his actions: Instead of more smoothly incorporating the familiar with the new, he’s decided that a radical approach is best. Although it’s impossible to say whether this tactic will fail, precedent — particularly in the experiments of Google with Gmail — doesn’t necessarily point to success.
Courage or foolhardiness? Time will tell.
One advantage Facebook does have over practically everyone else? It’s working backward. Whereas companies like Google have been hard at work trying to incorporate forward-thinking, interconnected qualities of social media to their foundations (see: Google Buzz), Facebook is looking back at how to innovate traditional mediums of communication.
This inherently puts them in a position ahead of the other usual web powers, such as aforementioned Google and Yahoo.
However, this advantage might disappear if Facebook charges too fast forward into the innovation abyss, leaving Zuckerberg to lick some unforeseen wounds. And as far as I can tell, there are a lot of people who are skeptical about the new messaging platform.
Of course, things are still in a very early stage; it’s not at all stupid to trust a company that has had explosive success in the recent past. Maybe this new form of messaging really will be a smashing hit.
But the doubts forming in people’s minds seem to signal that Facebook’s revolutionary mindset might not fly as well as Zuckerberg and company believe.
There’s a very crucial plot point in the film The Social Network, in which Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, chooses to nurture a growing population of users instead of risking the appeal of Facebook by chasing advertisement revenue. It’s implied that one aspect of Facebook’s rise to eminence was that its business model favored intuitiveness and user satisfaction above all else.
Zuckerberg and Facebook are rolling the dice by introducing a potentially polarizing new way of communicating. Sure, it looks like a great way to connect with your friends, but it’s a little overreaching to say that it’s the wave of the future. After all, it won’t be worth anything unless users take to it like fish to water. With all these question marks in the air, will they?
Something tells me it’s going to a long time before Zuckerberg’s communications utopia becomes reality.
Eddie Kim is a sophomore majoring in print journalism. His column, “Culture Clash,” runs Thursdays.