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Exercises in closed and open systems: FB 1, Email 0

A few months ago, Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook, COO) declared at a conference. "Email is probably going away."

My immediate reaction was: "Umm...ok." I knew what she meant, but still disagreed with the phrasing.

A lot of communication that would've been email for me in the past was now posts to my Facebook wall or messages in my FB Messages (which is really just a closed, ok-ish webmail client.)

Some of this was for the better (e.g. Wall posts), some of it was definitely for the worse.
Here's what happens when someone sends me a FB Message (!!rant warning!!)
  • I end up opening a message in my gmail account.
  • Read it; occasionally hit reply before remembering this won't work....Grr
  • Go to Facebook and complete the communication.... 3-4 completely unnecessary clicks
  • And if someone forks a message thread, it results in a huge mess that generally makes me want to punch my computer screen..... Whoomp!
The need for a system that reliably delivers text and more to a person isn't going away: i.e. email is not going away.

In terms of doing this and helping people manage this communication Gmail does this better than anyone else out there. People that aren't using gmail just need to catch up with civilization (right here is when a lot of my friends just want to throw something at me.)

However the notion that Facebook messages (which is a sub-par email client and a closed system to boot - its email, but only for Facebook users) could become a substitute for email isn't that outlandish.

Here's what happened to me.

I wanted to email four friends of mine that I hadn't been in touch with for a while to see if they wanted to meet up. I fired up my email client and started typing their names in the "To:" line hoping my gmail client would complete the magic and fill in their email ids. It didn't. I'd never actually emailed these people before from my gmail account (shame on me!)

Now I could log into Facebook and read their email ids and type them in one-by-one, or I could just use FB messages. Like most users, I went with what took fewer keystrokes and clicks.

This is the choice that most users make, and gives Facebook the time they need to improve the other aspects of their product so that users don't miss their earlier email clients. At that point they may even open up their product to be more like LinkedIn, which has similar closed webmail systems, but plays nicer with email by letting you reply directly to a person from your preferred email, when you get the fwded message.

They did this brilliantly (or it worked out brilliantly) with Facebook Connect and the Open Graph API - waiting for the network effects to kick in and be large enough so that you get more benefit from opening up and making the system more useful to your current users, rather risk losing users that might not migrate from their existing system.


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