Urgent Changes Are Needed To Facebook Messaging

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Facebook email, which they call messages, is becoming completely unusable as a personal or business productivity tool. When I first joined Facebook it was fine. I only had a few friends on the service, and people didn’t do much with it except to occasionally say hi.

But as Facebook usage has exploded, particularly where I live in the tech world, so has messaging. For many of my contacts Facebook messaging is the only way I stay in contact with them, and it is increasingly becoming the pitch platform of choice. Instead of emailing TechCrunch directly, entrepreneurs will add me as a friend on Facebook, and then send their pitch for a story.

To ignore these messages would kill off a rich source of information. But the product is so feature poor that all I can do is respond as fast as possible to Facebook messages with “please email this to me at TechCrunch” and move on.

For starters, simply opening emails has a serious lag time – Facebook as a whole has slowed down significantly as their growth has exploded, and it is most obvious with messaging. At this point I’ll open the inbox and then open the 5 or 10 top messages in new tabs – and come back later once they’ve loaded and read them.

Other things you can’t do with Facebook email: forward them, put them in folders, tag them, or archive them. You can’t search or sort them at all, so finding old messages is effectively impossible. If you are getting 20 or more new messages a day and can’t constantly watch for new ones, some will drop to the next page before you see them and be lost forever.

Advanced features are also lacking, of course. There is no POP or IMAP access to pull Facebook emails into other applications like Outlook or Mac Mail. And no way to send attachments. Finally, why not simply issue Facebook users a normal email address that they can use to receive outside messages? Users could choose to turn it on or not.

Facebook has made small changes over time to email. In August 2007 the started allowing people to send messages to outside email addresses. And in December 2007 they started forwarding messages in the notifications sent out to your normal email messages (prior to that you had to click on the message link).

But for the most part they’ve left the product static and focused on new products like chat and enhancing the news feed.

What would be ideal is for Facebook to simply add access to email via their API and let third parties build web and desktop mail applicaitons that can sort, search and otherwise manage messages. But that functionality doesn’t exist, and Facebook has shown little tolerance for third party applicaitons that solve user problems in innovative but unauthorized ways.

Something needs to be done, though. Facebook needs to fix email themselves, or allow third parties to do it for them. By “fix” I mean add basic features, allow exporting of messages via standard protocols, and issue users a standard Facebook email address to receive outside messages.

I suspect, based on conversations I’ve had with Facebook insiders, that they are working on feature enhancements already. But based on their very closed approach to Facebook chat, it’s clear that they want as much activity and data to stay on their servers as possible. My hope is that they reconsider the approach, and let Facebook emails go free into the wild.

I am clearly a non-standard user of email, and most users won’t have the same level of frustration…yet. But eventually mainstream frustration will equal the levels I’m feeling now. It is far better to address this now, than later.

And…if Facebook got serious about email, they could very easily become a contender in that space in no time. And that may take the wind of out the sails of Yahoo and others trying to build their social networking future around their email products.

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