Facebook Mail: Strengthening the Ties That Bind

If you were looking for the bigger picture behind the tit-for-tat war that has been going on between Google (s goog) and Facebook over the ability to export your email contacts, another piece of the puzzle may have just fallen into place: the giant social network is making a major announcement on Monday, and one popular theory is that it will launch an email service it has reportedly been working on, code-named Project Titan. While many see this as an attack on Gmail, the bigger goal is likely to strengthen the ties (or chains) that bind Facebook to its core user base. But do they want — or need — Facebook email?

The recent tug-of-war over data exportability (“Battle of the Web Giants!”) has seen Google block Facebook from automatically importing Gmail contacts, followed by a workaround that the social network implemented to take advantage of Google’s open-door policies, and finally a snarky message from Google warning users about trapping their contacts inside Facebook. The backdrop to all of this is that those contacts — and the connections and relationships between them — are at the core of what Facebook is, and of what it offers to users (and thus, what creates much of the value it offers to advertisers).

Facebook’s defence of its actions was interesting, in the sense that the network seemed to be arguing that Google should have to allow users to export their contact info from Gmail, because it is just an email program — but Facebook shouldn’t have to do the same because it is a social network, and the rules around ownership of that contact information are more complex (and yet, Facebook routinely allows users to move their contact data to services offered by partners such as Microsoft (s msft) and Yahoo (s yhoo)). But the real reason for the network’s reluctance to allow this kind of data to be exported easily is that it is a fundamental part of the “social graph” that Facebook is so focused on.

Adding a full-featured email service to the network would strengthen Facebook’s ties to users, and particularly to those younger users who are still a large part of the network’s user base — and who have either not adopted email at all, have mostly given it up in favor of Facebook messaging, or are still using Hotmail accounts they set up when they were teenagers. Adding the ability to use an @facebook address for all Facebook-related contacts, including messaging and status updates or other information from the network, could lock those users in even further.

One other point: Offering an email service is an opportunity for Facebook, but it is also a potential risk. Why? Because in order to be really attractive — particularly to older users who already have other email accounts, including those they access through corporate clients such as Microsoft Outlook — it’s only going to work if it is as open as possible, and that means integrating with other email programs (and possibly even Microsoft’s Office Web Apps) as well as potentially offering support for mail on custom domains, the way Google does with its email service.

In other words, a fully extensible email service is going to be a pretty big door into (and therefore out of) Facebook’s walled garden. Among other things, it’s going to be a lot harder for Facebook to argue that it can’t export email contacts when it is running an email service identical to the one its giant competitor offers. But the bigger question is: Does anyone really want (or need) an @facebook.com email address?

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Rupert Ganzer