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Facebook: Privatising the internet, one Poke at a time

Embrace'n'extend, bitch

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Comment The world has been pretty slow to wake up to the power of Facebook and Google, web services with the power to make internet standards disappear faster than a Poke. But maybe people will sit up now. Mark Zuckerberg's embrace and extend attitude doesn't just encompass your data - but email protocols too. And there's very little you're going to be able to do about it.

At a typically oversold launch event yesterday, Zuckerberg complained about the "friction" generated by having to compose a simple email. You had to type a subject line in, he said, incorrectly, making people wonder if he'd ever used email himself. It's too formal, he concluded. The poor love - I'm surprised he hasn't thought about suing the developers of POP3 for emotional distress, as well as repetitive strain injury.

The Facebook plan is to integrate email and SMS into Facebook, into one great big inbox, which will be stored forever. And which will naturally drown people who are not on Facebook under a tide of real-time chaff - Web2.0rhea, as we call it here.

The irony here is that Facebook is already a privatised messaging platform. It has got to where it is on merit, I think - it is a rich and nicely implemented UI. Ordinary people think of it as a quite natural "upgrade" to the Hotmail and Yahoo! mail services that they were using 10 years ago. These gradually got inundated with spam and special offers. Maybe Facebook will too, but for now, "communicating" means stopping at Facebook first - because people's friends are there - and then (more wearily) logging into Hotmail and wading through the promotional coupons, special offers, bogus solicitations to login to your bank account, and Viagra advertisements.

It might strike some people as unfair to think of Facebook as the new Microsoft. People, who've drunk the liberation theology Kool Aid of Web 2.0 suppose that the web is a kind of Garden of Eden, where startups are always bright and inventive, where disputes are set aside, and where the good guys generally win.

Microsoft liked to keep its email protocols proprietary, of course. Outlook email is just bog-standard email protocols, wrapped in overly complicated and non-standard DCE/RPC calls. Hotmail and Exchange Server used another internet protocol, WebDAV, which while not as impenetrable still required some work to talk to. Facebook hasn't had to do it at all. It already has a critical mass of users, which is essentially a privatised address book.

(I've railed against the paucity of email clients recently - I realise it's a minority pursuit, and protocols haven't evolved as fast as the web services. But from your response - 70 emails on a Sunday - I know I'm not alone in ruing this a little).

Don't count your pokes

However I fear that hubris is Zuckerberg's middle name, and things may not go as smoothly as Facebook hopes.

Typically, Zuckerberg hasn't thought through the implications of the integration for people who aren't like Zuckerberg (and think subject lines are mandatory, and adding a salutation ("okthxbye") creates "friction".

The major design error is supposing that people value all communications equally, at the same flat level, and that messages from the boss who sends one every six months are of equal importance to the Twittering ex-colleague who sends 45 a day.

Each communication medium we use has different norms, and of course different levels of privacy - something Facebook emphatically brushed aside yesterday. How will Facebook acknowledge this? Perhaps it will hire some more UX gurus and give email a slightly different hue of some pastel shade in the inbox. That'll fix it.

Facebook's "social inbox" is anything but. It doesn't really help people on the outside reach people on the inside. It doesn't help Facebookers manage their communications with people on the outside. It's another argument that because Web 2.0 designers don't understand the subtleties and contradictions of real human relationships, they can't create software that helps real people.

In the last century, an intellectual fashion swept out of psychology, where it had been born, into policy making. BF Skinner was a utopian who believed man could be changed for the better. He suggested we were the results of our conditioning, and our behaviour could be trained, much as rats can be trained to urinate on command. "Behaviourism" had great appeal to politicians, as well as advertisers. It was a nasty "-ism" that fell out of favour for several reasons. One of these was Skinner's insistence that we are incapable of constructing our own environment.

Web 2.0 sees the return of behaviourism, but with a smiley face. It forces us to respond in a limited numbers of ways. But we continue to choose our mediums, and construct our own environments. Zuckerberg has made the same mistake as Skinner.

Earlier this year, Google tried to turn Gmail into Facebook. Facebook is trying to embrace and extend email. Is it wicked to wish that both of these data-hoarders learn a vital lesson from this? ®

Andrew welcomes your comments.

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