The complete guide to Facebook Messenger

Facebook Messenger arrived yesterday, bringing a cross-platform group messaging solution that leverages your Facebook network and SMS to reach a wide potential audience. I compared it at a high level to other messaging solutions, but let’s take a closer look at Facebook’s offering and what it can do.

Getting started

Facebook Messenger requires only that you have an active Facebook account to play. That should make things easy for about 750 million of you. If you’re among the rare few smartphone owners who aren’t yet on Facebook, you can also sign up for an account right from the Messenger app, thanks to a link that shoots you to the mobile sign-up page in your device’s browser.

Home screen

Once you’ve signed in, you’ll be taken to a screen displaying a list of your messages. This will pull in any existing conversations you have on Facebook itself, including Facebook Chat conversations and Facebook Messages. You can interact with any of these existing message threads just as you would on the Facebook site. Each message in the list displays the names of conversation participants, a preview of the most recent message received or sent, when the last message was received or sent, and a blue circle if there are unread messages in the conversation thread.

Swiping left on any conversation listed on the home screen will bring up a button that allows you to archive it. Archived messages can still be viewed from the Facebook website, under Messages, by scrolling to the bottom of your inbox and hitting the View: Archived link.

Creating new messages and replying to existing ones

From the home screen, tapping the new message icon in the upper right corner (the one that looks like a pen writing on a square of paper) will bring up a new message creation screen. Here, you’ll asked to specify recipients in the “To:” field. Just start typing on the device keyboard to begin bringing up potential recipients from your on-device address book, or from your list of Facebook friends. A little phone icon next to a person’s name indicates that they have a mobile number available, which means your message will be sent to them via SMS if they don’t have the Facebook Messenger app installed. If a recipient receives a message from the app via SMS, they can simply reply to that text to contribute to the thread.

Once you’ve chosen your recipients, or if you’re replying, once you’ve tapped a conversation listed on the home screen, tapping the text entry field just above the keyboard will let you enter your message. The little arrow at the right of that same field indicates location sharing. Just tap it to either enable or disable sharing your location information with the message recipients. Tap the camera icon to the left of the text field to either take a picture, or choose one from your device’s library to include in the message.

Changing universal settings

From the home screen, tap the gear icon in the upper left corner to access settings that apply to all conversations. You can choose to mute new message alerts here for either one hour, or until the next morning at 8 AM. You can’t turn entirely off alerts for all conversations from here, but you can effectively do that by turning off Notifications for the Facebook Messenger app entirely in the iOS Settings application.

In the Facebook Messenger general settings, you can also access the online Help database for the app, as well as view a screen instructing you how to turn location services on and off for the app in general. Finally, you can log out of your account from this screen.

Changing individual conversation settings

For each conversation thread, you can set specific settings that won’t affect the behavior of others. To do this, simply tap on any conversation from the home screen, and then tap the gear icon in the upper right corner of the conversation screen.

If you’re working with a conversation between only two people, you’ll be presented with a screen that lets you change the alerts for this particular conversation. You can choose to turn alerts completely off, as well as mute them for one hour or until the next morning. If you’re looking at a group conversation, you’ll also have the option to change the conversation name here, which makes it easier to keep track of what’s being discussed in each thread.

From the conversation settings screen, tap at the bottom to view the people involved in the conversation, or the map icon to view the locations of participants, if they’re sharing that info. On the People screen, you can see a list of everyone taking part in the conversation, and either create a group conversation if you’re looking at one with just two participants, or add additional people if there are more than two people involved. On the Map screen, tapping map pins will tell you who checked in there, and how long ago they checked in.

That’s pretty much all you need to know to get started using Facebook Messenger. Some have been heralding it as a threat to iMessage, but considering that iMessage will be built-in to all iPhones once iOS 5 arrives, and will work automatically when users go to send text messages, they aren’t really all that competitive in my opinion. I, for one, intend to use both. Anyone else planning on making Facebook’s offering a permanent part of their device setup?