Facebook Continues Its Drive to Own the Conversation

Facebook did two very different things Tuesday that show how the social network is stepping up its efforts to become a key player in the way people communicate online. The first was the acquisition of Beluga, a group-messaging startup that we have written about a number of times here at GigaOM, and the second was the news that the giant social network is rolling out its new commenting plugin to a number of websites and publishers — including GigaOM. Both these moves fit perfectly with Facebook’s unified inbox strategy, and its attempts to become an integral part of how we communicate with each other online.

The unified inbox, which is still being rolled out to users, was announced late last year as an all-in-one repository for any kind of Facebook-related communication. Text messages, SMS, chat conversations or email (via new custom addresses ending in @facebook.com), all are funneled into a single location where users can see their ongoing conversations regardless of the method used. As Mark Zuckerberg explained at the time, the intent was to adapt to how younger users communicate now, something that takes place across a broad variety of platforms, and frequently doesn’t involve email.

Buying Beluga fits that strategy perfectly. Text messaging is already one of the main forms of communication for younger users, and the ability to create groups in real-time and send messages to all the members of the group — something competitors such as GroupMe also offer — makes a good fit for Facebook’s existing suite of communications tools, especially since the social network has been focusing more on mobile technologies. Theoretically, there’s even the potential for Beluga’s group messaging to be integrated into the network’s location-specific features via Facebook Places.

When it comes to the new commenting features, the launch of a new Facebook comment plugin was rumored to be on its way earlier this year. Sites like GigaOM and The Economist now have the option of allowing users to log in via Facebook and then share their comments automatically with their social graph. But the plugin is also a two-way street: Any responses that come from users on Facebook are also posted to the originating site. So it’s not as though the comments that occur here will simply disappear behind the Facebook walled garden; there is a back-and-forth that is crucial to the feature as well.

For us at GigaOM, and for other websites and publishers, the ability to have “real” identities attached to the comments that appear on the site has the potential to improve the quality of comments, which can sometimes descend into flame wars and spammy link-jacking. The issue for some, however, is that this comes at a price — and the price amounts to effectively handing over the commenting function to Facebook.

Some commenters are also unlikely to want to login with Facebook, and we and other publishers have to find a way of accommodating both of those groups without creating a two-tiered system that makes some commenters appear more important than others. For now, users have the option of either logging in with Facebook or WordPress (the comment plugin rollout was supposed to include the ability to login with Twitter or Google user IDs, but that apparently isn’t happening).

For Facebook, meanwhile, the commenting feature ultimately serves the same kind of purpose as its original open-graph platform, which powers the ubiquitous “like” and “recommend” buttons that now appear everywhere on the web (including beside comments posted via the new plugin). The purpose is to extend Facebook’s tentacles out into the broader web and integrate its social-graph features into as many different sites and services as possible — like a Web 2.0 version of Microsoft’s ( msft) old “embrace and extend” philosophy, but in social terms rather than software terms.

For now, at least, the prospect of being able to tap into that 600-million-strong user base is simply too appealing to pass up.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Micky Aldridge

Disclosure: Automattic, maker of WordPress.com, is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.