Inside The War Room: Answering The Questions Behind Facebook Messages

Earlier today, we got a chance to talk to Joel Seligstein, the Engineering Manager in charge of Facebook’s new Messages product. Messages, as you’ve probably heard by now, is Facebook’s new email/SMS/chat hybrid — a system where Facebook lets you interact with your friends without putting much thought into which technology you want to use to reach them. And while the new product clearly has quite a bit of potential, there are still plenty of questions: Who is this for? And is there still a place for the old-school email systems we’ve all come to know and love (and hate)?

Check out the video above for Seligstein’s answers (some of which we’ve transcribed below). Oh, and take a look at the background — we conducted the interview in the Facebook Messages ‘war room’, so you can see are over a dozen engineers cranking away as they launch the product.

Seligstein says that Facebook began the project, codenamed Titan, before Google launched Wave, which was its take on the messaging platform of the future. So what drove Facebook to begin working on its own messaging platform?

“One main thing that we noticed was that lots of communication was happening both in Facebook and outside Facebook. I’d send emails to people all the time — that means I have to check my email address many times a day. I’d really rather have that personal, people-to-people communication along with my other Facebook messages. Same thing over SMS — as I moved to an iPhone, for example, I was kind of obsessed with how those messages came in through that channel. So really what we’re trying to do is figure how to bring all personal communication together.”

On whether this will be used primarily by teenagers and twenty-somethings, who seem to favor SMS and chat over email:

“I think those will be the first early adopters — I think they’ll grab on really easily. They won’t even notice that they’re using some different newfangled messaging system. It’ll just work the way they want, the way they’ve been wishing it would work.

I think we will have a little bit of an adoption problem — not a problem, but it will take a little longer for the rest to hop on board. We’ve noticed even for us, it takes a week or two before you really grab on and get this system. I think they’ll slowly come on board but I think the younger guys will grab it really quickly.”

And is Facebook Messages a ‘Gmail Killer’? Seligstein says no, but it sounds like he thinks traditional email will be relegated to non-social messages like bank statements, with communication between friends occurring on Facebook. In other words, Email wouldn’t be dead — it would just be on life support.

We all still use email on our team. [Messages] is really focused on the people and personal communication. We’ve noticed very quickly that our email boxes become high signal for bank statements and things along those lines, and then our Facebook inbox has become very high signal for people. We found there is kind of a duality there, and they’re both extremely useful so we don’t see them going away any time soon.

Deals, newsletters, all those kinds of things are very important, it just becomes how to surface those correctly. I don’t know what the future is for email. I think we’re trying to capture the personal communication of email. We’re almost not interested in the rest..”

During our interview, we also touch on Facebook’s decision to build the new Messages product using HBase instead of Cassandra, MySQL, or another solution — you can find the company’s full blog post on the underlying technology here.