Hands-on with the new Facebook messaging system

Our friends over at Facebook were nice enough to hook us up with an invite to the initial roll-out of the company’s new messaging service announced this week. We’ve been messing around with the system for a few hours and thought we would put together some initial impressions for those who are interested or curious. Hit the jump and let’s get to it.

The announcement of the new messaging feature, which was delivered by Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, hammered home a message that was clear and consistent: this is a new messaging platform, not an email killer. And we think that assessment is spot on. When Facebook activates its new messaging system on your account you are presented with the above screen asking you to upgrade. Once the upgrade is complete, Facebook asks you several questions in order to figure out how you are going to be utilizing the new service. The three questions are: would you like a facebook.com email address, would you like to setup your phone to receive SMS messages from Facebook, and would you like to take Facebook’s chat client online (if it isn’t already)? Once those preferences are configured the messages application looks the same but acts very different.

All messages you receive from a single contact are aggregated under that contact’s name; from there, the list is sorted by date received. Below each contact’s name (they are all burred in the above screen shot) is the subject of the message (if there is one) followed by a small snippet from the message. Messages are displayed in the following format:

Subject • Snippet from the message…

Once you enter one of these contact threads, the real magic begins. The threads present you with all of your correspondences that have been routed through Facebook with a particular contact. Facebook IMs, emails to and from your facebook.com email address, Facebook messages, and SMS messages. The Facebook team said they were trying to keep the context and consciousness of your message streams as they happen in real life — people often switch from email, to IM, to SMS, etc. — and they did a very good job.

Below is a threaded conversation between BGR President Jonathan Geller and myself. You’ll notice that there is a small, gray icon directly to the right of each individual message’s timestamp. This indicates the medium through which the message was sent. A small chat bubble indicates the message originated from a Facebook chat window, a small phone indicates the person used a mobile device, and an envelope indicates email. When you reply to a message it automatically uses the last medium the messages sender used. If your message came via email the reply is sent via email and so on.

During the course of our conversation, we seamlessly bounced between Facebook’s messaging center and chat windows, the Facebook app on our mobile devices, and SMS. The entire correspondence was captured by the new message center.

If you have SMS setup, new chat windows actually allow senders (writing from Facebook’s new system) to choose SMS as a medium; Facebook says this feature is for very important messages that required immediate attention, and the feature can be disabled or restricted. While still a little rough around the edges, the whole concept of switching communication methods without switching programs is pretty slick.

However, there were a few things we didn’t like about the system. Push notifications of new messages when away from Facebook (currently only supported on the iOS client) were a little spotty. We couldn’t find any way to set up our Google Voice number as the preferred SMS destination — to try and avoid Facebook blowing through our text messaging quota — so we ended up disabling the SMS option.

Also, as advertised, Facebook really did make digital communication feel way less formal… and we’re not sure we like it. Now, we’re in our late-twenties (Jonathan isn’t but he’s an old soul), which could make us too old to understand the new concept, but we sort of like the formality that is in emailing. A nice subject line, a salutation, paragraphs… if you write a friend, colleague, or family member a long, formatted email it says something about the subject matter and the value you place on it. Although thought-out messages are completely doable with Facebook’s system, the way the content is laid out and presented sort of urges you to write a short, maybe even curt, response.

So what are our final thoughts? Don’t be fooled; this is a great service. If you have a large group of friends on Facebook — and we’re guessing if you are under 30 you do — it makes communicating, organizing, and viewing conversations with friends extremely easy. The messaging platform, which we remind you is still in the testing phase, does need some tweaking and refining, but it just may be where online communication is headed. Will hordes of people begin using facebook.com addresses as their primary means of communication? No, probably not anytime soon. Are we inclined to use Facebook’s messaging system a lot more? Yes. And we’re pretty sure that is the point.

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