Facebook has summoned members of the media to San Francisco next Monday for a "special event." The invitation is totally devoid of useful information except for a speech bubble icon with a vague resemblance of an e-mail message inside of it—the very same icon set that's currently used in Facebook's "Messages" section.
People have been wondering if Facebook could eventually replace conventional e-mail for years now and, while that may be true, the way Facebook currently handles direct e-mail-like messages is far from ideal.
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You get an e-mail from Facebook saying that one of your friends sent you a message, you can read the message from within the e-mail that Facebook sends you, but to reply you have to log in to Facebook.
Assuming Facebook will eventually revamp this process—whether on Monday or sometime in the future—I could see the company going one of a few ways.
Facebook.com E-mail Addresses
First, it could simply roll out its own e-mail system. Users would get their own e-mail addresses based on our Facebook handles (mine would be firstname.lastname@example.org, for instance) and people you're not friends with on Facebook could send messages to that address.
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This could create a problem for users who haven't customized their Facebook URLs, though, as some people's Facebook profiles are still represented numerically. Nobody wants an e-mail address like email@example.com and Facebook can't just assign e-mail addresses based on people's first and last names since there are too many duplicates.
The company could prompt users to set up their own e-mail address handles, similar to how just about every other e-mail system works. My name may be Doug Aamoth but my Facebook e-mail address could be firstname.lastname@example.org if I move quickly (please let me have that one, you guys). Such a system goes against Facebook's attempt to get people to use their real names on everything, though.
The big allure for Facebook here, would be that it could build an e-mail system similar to (or better than) Gmail to entice its users to do all of their e-mailing from within Facebook. You'd have to be able to pull in mail from outside accounts, though, similar to how you can have multiple e-mail addresses pulled in to your Gmail inbox.
Autoforwarding E-mail Aliases
This would be similar to the above idea, except Facebook would totally remove itself from handling direct messages altogether.
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You'd get a Facebook.com e-mail address but it'd be tied to an existing e-mail address you already use. Any messages sent to your Facebook address would automatically show up inside your e-mail system of choice, and you'd be able to reply directly to messages without logging into Facebook.
This would probably be easiest for users to adopt, but it doesn't benefit Facebook much and it's unlikely that the company would hold a press event to announce that it's giving up on direct messaging.
New E-mail/No E-mail
Facebook may throw everyone a curveball by attempting to either totally re-invent the concept of e-mail or totally do away with the concept of e-mail altogether. I honestly can't conceptualize how they'd do away with e-mail and it'd be a real hard sell for those of us over the age of 25, but most younger generations rely on e-mail far less nowadays than the rest of us.
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Facebook may ultimately attempt to create a new type of messaging hybridization—perhaps something that combined the ease of a status update with the directness of an e-mail message.
The big challenges would be how to loop people you aren't friends with on Facebook into messages, and how to store and organize past messages. It'd be cool, for organizational purposes, if you could click on a person's photo in your timeline and quickly see all the previous messages you've sent back and forth between each other.
Facebook could also attempt to build something along the lines of the ill-fated Google Wave system. How convenient that the guy who created Google Wave, Lars Rasmussen, just joined Facebook earlier this month.
Wave was pitched as "a new web application for real-time communication and collaboration," but was ultimately killed off by Google in August of this year. Perhaps Rasmussen has something new and improved up his sleeve for Facebook. Of course, that'd be a hell of a turnaround seeing that he just left Google a couple of weeks ago. Stranger things have happened, though.