Facebook’s Social Inbox Wants to Take Over Your Email

Updated. Facebook was widely expected to launch a new email service this morning, but what the company announced was much broader than email — CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it is a single “social inbox” for every kind of communication that people use online or from their mobile phones, including email, SMS, instant messaging and Facebook chat messages. Zuckerberg said that the company has tried to build what he called a “modern messaging system” that is lightweight and easy to use, and offers a number of features that blend the usability of email and the benefits of other systems such as Facebook chat, instant messaging and SMS.

The three main features of the new service include:

  • A seamless messaging system: Facebook’s social inbox handles email, but also SMS and IM. Users will be able to have facebook.com email addresses, Zuckerberg says, “but this is not email — I don’t even think email will be the primary way people communicate.”
  • A single conversation history: Zuckerberg said that one thing that adds weight to email is threaded replies, so the new service will have a single conversation history for all your communication with a person, regardless of whether it comes via email, SMS, IM etc.
  • A social in-box: Because Facebook knows who your friends are, you can see only messages that are really relevant, says Zuckerberg, and therefore “the default experience is all really high-signal personal messages.” In other words, less spam.

Update: The Facebook CEO said the rollout of the new messaging system would be gradual, starting with a small group of invitation-only users (including those who were present at the announcement). Zuckerberg also said the existing messaging system — which this replaces — has more than 350 million active users, and the social network handles about 4 billion messages a day, including status updates and instant messages. Director of Engineering Andrew Bosworth told those at the press conference that the 15-person team working on the new system was the largest engineering team Facebook has ever had for a single product or feature.

It was clear from Zuckerberg’s comments at the launch that Facebook sees the new social inbox as way of appealing to younger users (as I described in my post about the rumored email launch). The Facebook CEO described how he was talking to high-school students while visiting his girlfriend’s family, and they said that none of them used email because it was “too slow.”

“I said ‘what do you mean, it’s instantaneous!’ Zuckerberg recalled. “I was kind of boggled by this.” But the Facebook founder said that he realized for many users, particularly younger users, email as it exists now is “too formal” and adds a lot of weight and social friction because “you have to think of the email address, think of a subject line, write ‘love Mark at the end'” and so on. The high-school students he spoke to preferred chat because it was easier and faster, he said — in other words, it had less “cognitive load.”

In many ways, what Facebook is trying to do seems a lot like Google’s ill-fated Wave (s goog)service: namely, create a single product that combines different forms of communication, including email, instant messaging, live chat, and so on. The benefit for Facebook is that it already has 350 million users who are addicted (on some level at least) to the social network’s messaging system, and many of them are probably like the high-school students that Zuckerberg talked to, and don’t use email. A unified inbox could give Facebook an even tighter relationship with those users — particularly in mobile, as Om pointed out.

Zuckerberg said Facebook doesn’t want to kill email (or Gmail, which he said “is a really good product”) but that over time, he sees more and more people moving away from email as their main form of communications, particularly with friends (although email is far from dying, as Simon noted in a post). When they are looking for something to move to, he suggested, Facebook’s unified social inbox will be right there waiting for them.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Robert Scoble