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Facebook has an Opening for Messaging, But This Ain’t It (Plus: What Should Google Do?)

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 16, 2010

There’s quite a bit of back and forth about the Facebook Messaging announcement.  Since a little time has passed, people have settled in and we’re slightly past the hype.  Time for my two cents:

Facebook has an opening based on at least two value propositions that I can see.  There is value in a single inbox, though at least one EI discussing the issue seemed to think that value was marginal.  I disagree.  Every “2.0” effort has to overcome the cost of introducing another silo where you have to divide your valuable attention.  This is one of the reasons I wrote my E2.0 is dead note–too many times the 2.0 effort doesn’t offer enough value to deal with yet another silo.  Without getting sidetracked into that discussion again, any new Social offering has to provide enough reasons to overcome the cost of divided attention.  What better gambit than to argue they will reduce the division by providing a single inbox?

The second value proposition is that they can use their Social Graph to add value to this inbox.  Zuckerberg wants to improve the signal to noise ratio, and most people would welcome that, if it works.  Scoble paints an interesting picture of Facebook as repository of better contact information in his discussion of the Social Graph openness war between Facebook and Google:

It’s too late for Google. Facebook knows this, which is why it’s being more open. Why? Well, my Google social graph has rotted. The 8,000 names on my Google Contacts are attached to email addresses that are old, not good, and phone numbers that are old, not good. Tonight I tried to call someone from my phone’s contact list. The number was dead. I went to Facebook, grabbed his new number there and I even made the call right from the Facebook iPhone app.

Now Scoble is not representative of any audience I’m very close to, but he is representative of some audience.  Perhaps it’s a growing audience.  I know people who spend hours in Facebook, but not many.  Perhaps their contact information is more current in Facebook than in Google Contacts.  For those folks whose contact and other information is more current, I can see where this might make sense.  Or perhaps Scoble just represents that audience that insists on having 8-10,000 or more close friends and nobody on any smaller lists.  I can see where it would be hard to keep that contact information current.

I have to say that after having tried to train Google’s Priority Inbox for about 6 weeks, I finally gave up.  I was spending more time training it than it was saving me.  Somehow the information available to Google was either not adequate, or their algorithms didn’t make good use of that information.  The bottom line is we shouldn’t take the logical-sounding promise of vast improvements in the relevancy of our inboxes based on Social Graph manipulations as a forgone conclusion.  Extracting useful semantics from data is a hard problem that will remain hard for some time to come.

However, if you are going to buy into the “Social Graph Can Add Value to Your Messaging” camp, you need to pick the Social Graph that fits your life.  Is there really one?  Don’t some people like Facebook mostly for friends and family, LinkedIn for professional contacts, and somebody else for some other thing?  Hold that thought!

Okay, those are the reasons why Facebook has an Opening for Messaging.  Did they score?

The answer so far seems to be a resounding, “No!”

Discussion among the EI’s was decidedly underwhelmed.  Nobody could understand what new value was being added.  I want to be sensitive to the notion that maybe these EI’s, all older software company execs, but not too old (grin), are not necessarily communicating in the same way that some demographics would.  There’s been a lot of talk for example about how the younger crowd has no use for email.  Perhaps there is value to them in having a threaded conversation inbox for their many other channels of instant messaging.  That’s a possibility the crowd brought up on email would overlook.  If that turns out to be a big issue, then the communication divide between these generations will turn out to be a lot larger than anyone thought.  It amounts to having an older generation that only listens to radio and a younger generation that only watches TV.  You can imagine how profound that might be.  Zuckerberg is watching this closely, and apparently High Schoolers tell him, “We don’t really use email.  It’s too slow.”

I will also reiterate that there is huge value in a single Inbox.  But this one has some serious flaws.  I briefly touched on the question of whether the Facebook Social Graph is the penultimate Social Graph to base your life around.  It isn’t for me, and I suspect it isn’t for a lot of people.  It might not even be for the majority of Facebook users for all we know.  That graph simply cannot capture the nuances of every aspect of our life, if for no other reason than Facebook has already mismanaged its stewardship of it for far too long.  They have constant privacy bru-ha-ha’s.  They’ve demonstrated a willingness to exploit it beyond the pale as the ultimate walled garden.  I frequently hear opinions along the lines of, “nor do I want to put my online identity anywhere near that company.”  Facebook is definitely getting a reputation as “that company” when it comes to trust.

Sam Diaz’s “First 10 Impressions” article was fascinating too.  The impression one gets is of a product with a fairly deeply flawed User Experience.  Sam is surprised by an awful lot of what goes on in this experience, and his summary makes that clear:

“Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was exactly right when he said that this is not a GMail killer. For now, it’s confusing and that’s intensified by the integration of SMS.”

Just as fascinating as the conclusion is some of the specific things Diaz found.   I found this one to be the most telling comparison of E-Mail and “2.0 Things”:

I have this overwhelming urge to go in and clean out my messages. I had no idea I’d had that many message exchanges on Facebook. And I had no idea that I had unread messages dating back to August 2009.

Note to 2.0 software designers: think hard about what this means as it’s an experience a lot of people are having.  It’s okay to miss a message or two among friends and family.  They will remind you if it was important and tease you about your forgetfulness if not.  However, when it comes to using Social for business, missing messages can be a real problem.  Imagine if your best customer tried to get some answers from your Social CRM support forums and you just missed the message.  This happens all the time.  It’s why the rest of the Customer Service world invented the Trouble Ticketing or Case Management systems.  They’re nothing more than managers of messages and action items that must not be forgotten.  In fact, contractually, they often must be handled within a specific SLA.  When was the last time you saw a Social CRM system do that?  To do it right, it has to be tightly integrated with your CRM system so it knows who is entitled to what treatment as well, no?  My former company, Helpstream, did all that, but we digress. 

Let’s agree that Facebook has an opening, but this ain’t it.  That puts the ball back into Google’s court.  What should they do?

First thing is they need to resist the normal Geek mentality.  You know, the one that leads to Second System Effect, defined by Wikipedia (hopefully with a hat tip to Fred Brooks!) as:

The tendency, when following on from a relatively small, elegant, and successful system, to design the successor as an elephantine, feature-laden monstrosity.

BTW, the small, elegant, and successful system is GMail.  And Google Reader.  And many other successful offerings in the Google lineup.  The tendency to monstrosity would be personified by Wave.  Repeat after me guys, “Wave was a bad idea and we don’t want to do it again.”  BTW, they won’t repeat that mantra.  Geeks hate to lose and somewhere is a Google Alpha Geek thinking it was a failure due to marketing, not waiting long enough, being too early to the market, or almost any reason except that it was a bad idea.  After all, it was probably hard to build, and anything hard to build is a Good Idea so far as most Alpha Geeks are concerned.  If it was easy, pretty soon non-Geeks would be doing it. 

Okay, having thought hard about it and having decided to avoid Second System Effect (phew!), this is not that hard.  Borrow a page from Sun Tzu.  Break out your OODA loops while you’re at it.  Competitive Strategy Sun-OODA 101 says, “Focus your strengths to strike your enemy where he is weak, force him to fight his war on many fronts, and keep him second guessing his own strategies so he never sticks to one long enough to see it to fruition.”  Let’s translate that to action:

Google, you are in the Inbox and Reader business, not the Social Graph in a Walled Garden Business (that’s Facebook).  Through Inbox and Search you are the Reader for the entire Internet for cripe’s sake.  Revel in your time and crush these pathetic date-seekers.  You are only missing two things:

1.  Unified Inbox:  Find an elegant combination of Reader and GMail and you are mostly there.  It ain’t that hard.  Resist the Second System Effect and git ‘er done.

2.  Promiscuous Connectivity:  Unfortunately, you are not good at this and have a lousy track record, but you have to succeed at this one because it’s the only antidote to 500 million strong Walled Social Graphs.

Why do I say Google has a lousy track record at promiscuous connectivity?  I dunno.  Maybe I’m soured by my experiences trying to integrate GMail with Outlook-Exchange.  It gets the email part because they can fall back on the POP/SMTP open standards.  It failed miserably with contacts and calendar integration, even when iPhone could do the job beautifully.  Maybe it’s because Google has never gotten for the Apps business that there are only 2 kinds of compatibility with Microsoft Office–100% Compatible and Not Compatible.  Guess which one Google Apps has?

This inability to promiscuously connect is not a failure of technology or IQ, it is a failure of willpower.  No Geek likes to have to slavishly deal with someone else’s standard.  They will hold their noses for Open Source, or some other Open Standard, but as for these other things?  Fuggedaboutit.  You may as well ask a Geek to maintain someone else’s code instead of rewriting it (Gasp!).  Oh the horror, the humanity of it all.

But wait, does Facebook have this issue too?  Evidently not.  They will lower themselves to the moral equivalent of screen scraping to get Google’s data while Google sits around and whines to the press instead of engineering some whizbang gizmo to suck the Social Graph out of Facebook’s Walled Garden.

Dudes, you are going to have to get good at doing this thing you evidently detest–living in the shadow of someone else’s software.  If you can seamlessly, easily for your users, and in real-time, continuously scrape all the Social Feeds and Graphs that are out there and feed them to a nice elegant little reader, you will win.  You do want to win, don’t you?  Well then that’s a technical problem worth solving.

BTW Google, consider this Facebook Messaging thing a shot across your bow.  Facebook will now start reaching out into your web.  If you don’t move quickly, they are going to OODA you and get inside your decision loop.

2 Responses to “Facebook has an Opening for Messaging, But This Ain’t It (Plus: What Should Google Do?)”

  1. jwhitling said

    Forgive my Facebook ignorance, I don’t use it and try very hard to stay away from it for privacy reasons.

    I read one report that states that non-Facebook emails/etc go into a “other” mailbox and that Facebook scrapes contact data from that inbox from non Facebook members. That alone will keep me from replying to any Facebook.com address.

    The whole “Facebook owns that data within it’s network” thing is still very disturbing to me. I can see Facebook’s contact data growing exponentially from that is move if it takes off. How much is that data worth? I don’t know the implications but imagine getting vendor emails similar to “Amazon thinks you’ll buy this crap because you bought that crap”, now because of a contact’s preferences seems to be just on the horizon.

    I have grown to trust Google though. I’m even considering moving all my emails to the cloud, along with *gasp* my contacts. Google has a superior spam filter at the server level and to me that is quite a draw.

  2. pankajunk said

    I see the situation as follows. Why did Facebook do this? To pull the vast number of email users who are Facebook resistant. Since doing it made business sense, it had an opportunity to put its own spin on email, and further pull people in. It is going to be popular for sure, unlike Google Wave, because Google Wave didn’t have a ready user base, and it just didn’t catch on. Facebook mail’s likely success will in turn have an effect on the definition of email, or what people expect from email (Gmail changed the definition somewhat). This in turn will trickle into the enterprise. What the impact will be is open to speculation. You may want to read my blog entry about it – http://www.hyperoffice.com/blog/2010/11/17/facebook-mail-gmail-the-future-of-communication-collaboration-software/

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