Skip to Content
Uncategorized

Why Facebook Wants Your E-Mail

A new messaging system could steal advertising dollars from Facebook’s rivals.
November 15, 2010

On Monday morning in San Francisco, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled what may be the company’s most ambitious technical project yet: An integration of Facebook’s internal messaging system with its users’ personal e-mail accounts. Facebook customers will now be able to get an e-mail address of the form “paulboutin@facebook.com,” but the system will also work with whatever e-mail service they already use.

Friend me: Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the company’s new messaging system at an event held in San Francisco.

Facebook isn’t pitching this as an alternative to Web-based e-mail like Yahoo Mail, MSN Hotmail, and Google’s Gmail. “We don’t expect anyone to wake up tomorrow and say I’m going to shut down my Yahoo account and switch exclusively to Facebook,” Zuckerberg told the assembled audience in San Francisco. Instead, it’s a way to add e-mail as yet another way for Facebook users to connect and converse with others, including those who aren’t on Facebook.

Rather than trying to steal customers away from Yahoo, Facebook is trying to bring those customers’ existing e-mail accounts into its ever-spreading reach. (Already, according to Nielsen, U.S. Facebook users spend 15 minutes per day on the site.) Should Google launch its rumored social network in the next few months, Facebook users will have less reason to switch to another network simply because it’s integrated with Gmail.

Facebook’s mail service isn’t live yet, but Zuckerberg detailed some of its main features: It will work with desktop and cell-phone e-mail clients via the POP protocol.

It will track conversation histories with other people, so you can quickly see all e-mail threads between yourself and another person. It will integrate internal Facebook messages and external e-mail into one in-box. It will use members’ friend networks to help prioritize messages and filter spam. Facebook’s iPhone app will support it, but it will also work over SMS text messaging. There will be privacy settings to control who can e-mail you.

There are no e-mail subject lines. Instead, the interface looks like chat, where you can view your entire history of messages back and forth with another person. There’s no support yet for the IMAP e-mail protocol, generally considered more robust and flexible than POP. But that may be coming.

This morning’s presentation didn’t cover advertising, but it’s obvious that by bringing its members’ external e-mail into a Facebook interface, the company is setting up a huge and highly targetable new area for advertisers. Facebook e-mail users will spend even more time on Facebook than they already do, and load more pagespages they previously would have loaded on another e-mail site. It looks like Facebook’s system will take ad revenue away from Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google. Webmail is a big source of traffic for those companies; the analyst firm comScore says Hotmail has 361 million users worldwide, while Yahoo has 273 million and Gmail has 193 million.

Tech industry professionals were amused when Zuckerberg told them that the e-mail integration project was Facebook’s largest software development effort yet, with all of 15 engineers working on it. By contrast, Microsoft employs hundreds of developers for its Internet Explorer browser. The small size of the team is perhaps the most significant demonstration yet of how Internet-based software development has been streamlined by platforms, standards, and APIsapplication programming interfaces that let engineers hook systems from different makers togetherto the point where 15 coders can link Facebook with most present and future e-mail services on the planet.

What happens now? Two words: Privacy scare. Security and privacy advocates are already poring over Zuckerberg’s words to find ways that the as-yet-unseen mail system might compromise its users. But from past experience, security holes are unlikely to slow the Facebook juggernaut. “The only fatal shortcoming would be a very serious breach of privacy that would scare anyone from using it,” Bernardo Huberman, director of Hewlett-Packard’s Social Computing Lab recently told Technology Review. So far, though, it seems Facebook users mostly choose to complain bitterly about Zuckerberg’s privacy goofs while using his site nonstop.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other
conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other

Forget dating apps: Here’s how the net’s newest matchmakers help you find love

Fed up with apps, people looking for romance are finding inspiration on Twitter, TikTok—and even email newsletters.

computation concept
computation concept

How AI is reinventing what computers are

Three key ways artificial intelligence is changing what it means to compute.

still from Embodied Intelligence video
still from Embodied Intelligence video

These weird virtual creatures evolve their bodies to solve problems

They show how intelligence and body plans are closely linked—and could unlock AI for robots.

We reviewed three at-home covid tests. The results were mixed.

Over-the-counter coronavirus tests are finally available in the US. Some are more accurate and easier to use than others.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.