When Did Facebook Replace E-mail?

Okay, we're not quite there yet (or you aren't if you're my age – I suspect 18-24 year olds are) but it feels like we're heading in that direction. 

E-mail was the original “killer app” of the Internet.  It was the one service that everybody online had since you got issued an e-mail address as soon as you signed up with an ISP or registered at a college.  If you were looking for a bit more permanence, you got a Hotmail or Yahoo! Mail or Gmail account.  Even though these services are web-based, they were really about e-mail, not web.  And not only did everybody have e-mail but it was the one thing online, possibly challenged only by Google, that everybody used as well.  (In fact, the only sites rated higher than Google on Alexa today are MSN and Yahoo – mainly on the strength of the traffic their e-mail systems bring in.) 

E-mail was (and is) effective because it provided a great mixture of  flexibility, speed and access.  You could send files with nearly any kind of attachment, your message would (usually) arrive in near instantaneous fashion no matter where the sender and receiver were in the world and, although there was never a successful e-mail directory like there are for phone numbers, you could usually hunt down e-mail addresses of the people you wanted to reach fairly easily. 

There were (and are) problems with e-mail.  Have you  tried sending a message with a large attachment lately?  How many spams do you get every day? Ever send a message to the wrong person in your address book accidentally?  But even with those problems, e-mail was the ultimate connector in a way that no single web site – not Wikipedia, not YouTube, not Ebay – could be. 

Now, that seems to be changing.  Facebook continues to grow exponentially and its messaging features are a big part of the reason.  Ironically, you need an e-mail address to sign up for a Facebook account and then, the default is that you get e-mail notification whenever anything happens related to your profile – a new wall post, a new private message, a new comment on a photo you've uploaded.  But Facebook has proven so “sticky” with the majority of people using it (ie. users log in regularly – often multiple times per day) that you're bound to see these items anyhow even if you never look at your e-mail in-box first. 

So we're heading to a point where Facebook could possibly be seen web site that finally shifts the e-mail vs. world wide web divide.  Why is this?

Advantages of Facebook Over E-Mail
1. Permanence
The problem with that ISP or college generated account is that it changes when you moved cities or graduated.  Hotmail and Yahoo! were free and traveled with you but (used to have) severe restrictions on how much space you had and often suffered security errors or data losses.  Facebook provides a new type of permanence in what (so far) appears to be a very stable platform. 

2. Spam Blocking
Facebook acts like e-mail but isn't so spam messages can't get through to your account in the same way they can with a standard e-mail address.  In fact, by being a closed system, so far, nobody seems to have found a way to send messages to your profile without your explicit permission at all.

3. Space Savings
As with Gmail, Facebook appears to have unlimited space provided for storing not only your messages but also your photos and blog posts (called “notes” in Facebook lingo.)  A major failing if Facebook is trying to replace e-mail is that it doesn't allow direct attachments and instead requires you to link to a file hosted elsewhere.  But if this option were included, e-mail's demise might be assured. 

4. It's E-mail (plus)
As noted above, Facebook provides a number of activities beyond what standard e-mail allows – everything from meaningless “pokes” to sharing blog-like posts, photos and more.  The recent addition of Facebook applications extends this capability infinitely and makes Facebook something even bigger – more akin to a web-based Windows than a web-based e-mail system. 

5. It's Also The Phone Book
Facebook provides what the massive range of e-mail providers never could – a single spot where millions of people are able to find each other and be found.  I've written how this still isn't perfect – people sign up using false names or initials, women can't provide their maiden name, people aren't required to join networks which would make it easier to find the John or Jane Smith you sent to high school with.  But if you're on Facebook, chances are pretty good that you've had better success tracking down long lost friends than via anything online allowed previously.

Those are just a few thoughts off the top of my head.  Here are a couple articles I found that touch on the same topic:

“Is Facebook Replacing E-mail?”
This article adds a couple reasons to my list above about why Facebook is replacing e-mail – namely that it's Mobile features are like having a free e-mail delivery service and also that the in-box layout is more intuitive than traditional e-mail.

“Facebook is stickier than email”
“How is Facebook stickier than email? Facebook is email, plus more (a lot
more). You use Facebook to send friends messages. Facebook Inbox will become
your spam-free email – only Facebook can do it because all your friends are on
it…That's why
50%+ users return
daily. Facebook's network effects make it impossible to duplicate their
network. Facebook is the phone number you will never change. Facebook is built
to last more than anyone. Now, which do you think is stickier?”

The Proprietarisation of Email
A negative take on the idea of Facebook (or any other closed system) replacing standards-based e-mail: 

“It would be terrible if email were to descend into something like the
multiple incompatible domains that afflict instant messaging – the
heroic efforts of gateway providers and multi-protocol clients
notwithstanding. Will we one day need accounts on every social website
in order to stay in touch? Will someone need to write a
Facebook/MySpace mail gateway?”

Comments 9

  1. Anonymous wrote:

    Hey Jason,
    Thanks for the nod. I definitely think there are many advantages to Facebook over traditional e-mail. Nonetheless, I'm still not convinced it will completely take over. It will be interesting to watch this unfold…

    Posted 15 Jul 2007 at 7:32 pm
  2. Anonymous wrote:

    Not sure how old you are but that hesitancy could be a function of our age. (I'm 33 and have had an e-mail account for 12 years so the thought of Facebook taking over seems monumental.) But as you say, it's definitely going to be interesting to follow developments.

    Posted 15 Jul 2007 at 7:55 pm
  3. Anonymous wrote:

    Another reason Facebook messages are better than email is the ability to share a link and talk about it. When you add a link, a picture is automatically added with it. So, for example, a YouTube link has a tiny screenshot of a frame from the movie.
    Recently, they added the ability to record video to send in a message, too. Pretty cool.
    For other innovations in email, check out Pownce (I'll send you an invite it you need it).

    Posted 16 Jul 2007 at 1:59 am
  4. Anonymous wrote:

    What do you see are some cons to Facebook?
    There may be reasons that you don't want people from 15 years ago (or two years ago, or just last week) finding you. Sure, 'why even have a Facebook account then?', or 'limit your account'. Maybe I don't see the benefits to Facebook over many other kinds of contact software (and the telephone – ha!). I don't mean “Facebook over Email”; just Facebook in general.

    Posted 16 Jul 2007 at 5:34 pm
  5. Anonymous wrote:

    I got an invite and joined Pownce already but feel free to add me if you see this message.

    Posted 19 Jul 2007 at 12:43 am
  6. Anonymous wrote:

    Cons of Facebook as replacement for e-mail or cons of Facebook in general? The answers are probably similar – the biggest issue in both cases is that Facebook is a closed system (you probably saw my recent post – Is Facebook the new AOL?)
    The privacy issue is more about Facebook in general. There are a number of hacks I've found (or that are just *there*) to find out more about people than they want.
    1. You can change your network once every six months or something so if you *really* wanted to stalk that girl you met during your Ontario vacation, you could conceivably do that since, by default, you can view anybody's profile who is in the same network.
    2. If the person you're trying to add has an auto-reply on their e-mail (if they're on vacation), the Facebook-moderated message sent to them asking to add you as a friend flows right back to you providing their e-mail address.
    3. If you search for anyone, there's always a link to “View Friends” so even if you can't view the person's information, you can still glean a lot about them, who they hang out with, etc.
    Jason (Stalker in Training, er, probably more like Stalking PhD)

    Posted 19 Jul 2007 at 12:52 am
  7. Anonymous wrote:

    Kids say e-mail is, like, so dead. from CNet

    Posted 05 Aug 2007 at 11:29 pm
  8. Anonymous wrote:

    Another difference between Facebookmail and Email I've noticed is that in Facebook, once the sender defines the distribution scope, it becomes fixed and cannot be expanded or shrunk. In other words, Alice, Bob or Charlie may not invite Dave into the discussion, nor could Bob respond in private to Alice or Charlie without starting a new thread. The upside is that whatever is said between Alice, Bob and Charlie remains private to them, but the downside is that others cannot chime in or add value.Read more…

    Posted 14 Dec 2007 at 10:13 pm
  9. Anonymous wrote:

    That's a good point. Thanks for the comment! Some interesting thoughts in the post of yours that you linked to as well – the idea of “colleague spam” via indiscriminate use of the cc: and reply all functions of e-mail is one I'm definitely familiar with (and probably contribute too as well.)

    Posted 17 Dec 2007 at 3:17 am
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