On additional inboxes

I know many hardcore tech nerds are not Facebook users, so the first few points here may seem irrelevant. But whether you yourself participate in it or not, I think we can all agree that Facebook is kind of a big deal, especially to the non-geek world. So many people have joined it that it’s incredibly useful tool for, say, contacting someone if you have no other contact information for them.

Ever since Facebook rolled out their Messages feature and tried to really make it stick, I’ve been increasingly frustrated. My non-geek friends now tend to use Facebook as a primary form of communication, which drives me crazy. Facebook’s email-like functionality lack so many basic features that I simply can’t manage it in the same way. I constantly drop balls that I wouldn’t drop over regular email service.

Drafts. For the love of Zuckerberg, let me save drafts! I get interrupted SO many times in a given day, especially now that my work is out of my home which has a cat and a kitchen and a garden and a thousand things to clean and sort and generally procrastinate doing. Plus I get phone calls, chat with neighbors, etc. I need to be able to abandon a Facebook message, have it auto-save, and have the UI somehow prompt me about this recently abandoned communication so I can pick it back up. (You know, like Gmail’s “draft” in red text.)

Marking unread. It used to be incredibly hard to mark a message unread, which was my workaround for flagging it to reply later. And even though that functionality is now added to most Facebook apps and site versions, it still doesn’t function like I need it to. You can mark a conversation unread, but doing so doesn’t make the notification badge remain red on the iOS home screen, and it doesn’t make the Messages icon show an unread message in the Facebook app. Once you’ve opened the message once, it behaves much more like a “read” than “unread” message regardless of whether you change that status. So if like me you get too much crap and rely upon self-categorizing messages to allow you to come back to them, you’ll find this extra inbox lacking the basic features you need.

Reply vs. Reply All. Most email programs historically have made it easy to accidentally fail to reply to all recipients. Gmail has a great Labs feature that allows you to make “reply all” the default option, plus their newerish feature of listing suggested additional recipients is sometimes helpful (even if most of the time it’s annoying). Historically, therefore, the fact that most e-messaging defaults to single reply means that it can be jarring when that’s changed up on you. Facebook’s default is reply all, and it’s very hard to uncover the option to reply to only a single person in a multi-person thread. Therefore, it opens up the possibility for way more embarrassing communication gaffes. This wouldn’t matter so much if people didn’t use Facebook Messages for important and/or sensitive info, but in my experience, they totally do. I hate having to be extra careful about my communication because the medium has completely shifted the way that e-messaging interfaces and features work.

Direct/Private Messages on an otherwise public system. A few months ago on Hypercritical, John Siracusa pointed out that he doesn’t like using inherently public networks like Twitter or App.net to communicate via private message. I totally agree there’s so much room for human or technological error. Email certainly isn’t infallible, but I trust its inherent privacy more than these outward-facing networks, because they were designed for direct peer-to-peer communication in the first place. Don’t even get me started on the types of info that Facebook friendquaintances feel is appropriate to post on a wall vs. send via a message I think the overshare nature of such networks encourages people to move away from the more prudent avenues of communication, which is a whole different set of frustrations. And requiring a followback for Twitter DMs is, of course, impractical and frustrating to all but the most overwhelmed celebrities. All in all, I so strongly prefer to use email when I want to contact a specific person about something I don’t intend to telegram to my entire social sphere people can always choose to ignore email, as they’ve been doing for decades now.

Formatting freedom. Look, I like being able to bold or color my text, and I hate that Facebook chooses when to implement graphical smiley faces (that then totally mess with line height, etc.) I also really REALLY hate when some element of a code snippet (often with a parenthesis) gets auto-converted to emoticon, ARGH. I want to control how images and links are embedded. I don’t like other programs making those kinds of decisions for me. I like composing subject lines. And ARGH character limits. Basically, though it may be unpopular with folks like Merlin Mann, I essentially like email and the job it’s done these past years, and I resent New Media trying to take over what I consider important form and function aspects of e-messaging, especially when those services are still learning from what I consider their many mistakes.

Pressure to adopt/adapt. If you’re not on Facebook, you probably have at least one person who nags you to join so they can send you pictures or invites. If you’re on Facebook, you probably have at least one friend you resent having to call/text/email when you want to invite them to parties, etc. And if you’re a geek, you’ve probably gotten bugged about joining App.net or have bugged other people to join it. Or maybe you’ve been annoyed failing to include a credit to someone on Twitter because they don’t have an easy-to-reference @-handle, so you have to waste precious characters spelling out their entire name, spaces and all. UGH. Maybe you’ve got a business that you’re reluctant to put on Foursquare or Yelp. Maybe you, like me, don’t want to have to maintain a Facebook page when nobody comes to your business via Facebook anyway. There are lots of annoyances to the pressures of joining or not joining new networks, and people like me who are curious about new social networks may feel overwhelmed if they partake in them all, but obligated to keep their finger on the pulse of this new direction. (For what it’s worth, I skipped Instagram and Tumblr entirely, and I’m hoping I don’t get roped into Path, etc.)

Sadly for me, most technophile nerds these days seem to prefer communicating via DM on Twitter, or PM/Omega on App.net. And most friends seem to prefer communicating and event-inviting via Facebook, except for a few holdouts who use Google+ and make me feel like I’m missing out on that sector of social life. I do my best to get with the times and flex to everyone’s preferred communication media, but MAN do I wish other people valued straight-up ole email in the same way that I do. It sure would make me better at communicating with my people! For now, I’ll continue to hope that services like Facebook adapt to include more email-like services in tandem with their push to get people to use their Messages. (Twitter, to its credit, started saving drafts of tweets you began to compose on their web service but didn’t come back to finish. Bless their hearts.)

Nothing is forever. Added on March 9, 2013: Facebook is phasing out their @facebook.com email address feature. Any time you rely on a single private company, you’re kinda forced to go with the flow when they change things up. (Remember the new Gmail interface a few months back?) Email is a more open protocol, especially when it’s an address that isn’t tied to a specific email service like Gmail or Hotmail. I like knowing that if Gmail does something I don’t like, I can take my virginiaroberts.com email address to any number of other providers, and find a program with the features and interface that work for me. Nobody’s gonna deprecate my email address the way Facebook did with my never-touched Facebook email address.

“I can see you typing…” So many alternative messaging services send read receipts without your express consent, so people can tell when you’ve read their email but you take ages to reply. They also show when you’re typing just the other day, I had someone say “I can see you typing :)” when he was awaiting a list of action items from me. He got that list sixteen hours later, when I was in a position to do more than just type brief notes. Do you really think the interface cue of me typing was helpful there? Oh, and don’t get me started on services that automatically sign you into some sort of messaging/chat program when you fire them up. I want to always, always, always decide when people can see me online and basically decide that I have open office hours.

I was just chatting with a client the other day, and we were chuckling about how the kids who are resistant to “email” are just using these terrible, feature-poor services that are basically a crappier version of email in a custom wrapper. I wonder when email will become cool and retro again, like mix tapes. Looking forward to that day!