The world on one platform

There was big news in the technology world this week: Facebook is launching a new messaging system that will remake Internet communication by aggregating your SMS, IM, chat and e-mail messages on one platform with a common gateway and single portal.

If you understand all that, you're probably primed for the revolution that techies claim will render e-mail laughably old school, if not obsolete.

But if you're like me, and don't know an SMS from an MMS, you're still probably stumbling around the world's biggest social networking site trying to figure out how to use the messaging options Facebook already offers:

If I click here, does my note go on his public wall or straight to his private box? Am I posting a link to this picture of my puppies or making it my profile photo? How did that snarky note I tried to send to my sister wind up as my status message?

That explains why I'm having a difficult time getting excited about the "convergent" new service that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg unveiled in San Francisco on Monday.

Zuckerberg called it a system that "handles messages seamlessly across all the ways you want to communicate." It looks to me like a system aimed at lashing users to Facebook with a mix of cachet and convenience.


Times reporter Jessica Guynn wrote about the service in a front-page story this week. Techies gushed over its potential. "This just makes those other systems look old and creaky," one blogger said. Young people will take to it "like fish to water," another analyst predicted.

Guynn's story wisely offered this caveat: "It's unclear how popular the service will be, particularly with older users."

I'm not sure what counts as old in Facebook world, but as someone whose newspaper career began in the era of typewriters and carbon paper, I'm probably in that demographic.

But I'm not alone in my cluelessness, judging from comments on Facebook's own page promoting the messaging service. Amid the technical back and forth about firewalls and privacy settings and the ratio of signal to noise was this plaintive request from a Facebooker: "can any1 plz tell me what will this be actually used for???"

I handed that off to Charlene Li, founder of the Altimeter Group, a Bay Area research firm whose website promises to "help companies and industries leverage disruption to their advantage."

"I've been getting this question a lot," she told me, "from people wondering 'Why would I ever use it?' "

Because it will make it easier for Facebookers to stay connected with one another, she said. And it may lure the uncommitted onto the networking site. "I find it to be a pain having to duck in and out of Facebook messages if I want to reach out to people for work," she said. "If I have to cc, forward something, schedule a meeting, it's a lot of cut and paste."

The new system lets you choose what method and route to use for your message. It will save a few moments, a few key strokes, the inconvenience of having to toggle between applications when you have something to say to someone — say, your mother — who is not logged onto Facebook 24/7.

"You don't live in Facebook; your daughter does," Li explained. "So she would have to take out her phone and text you. Or get out of Facebook and go to her regular e-mail to reach you. Now she can skip that. Now she won't have to sign out and won't have to do 'chat.' She can say 'I know the best way to reach Mom is by text. And I don't have to get out of Facebook to do that.' "

Got it?

She won't have to miss a second of some terribly important Facebook conversation — about, say, how many Four Lokos you can drink before requiring the assistance of paramedics — while she's busy pecking out a text on her cellphone or, God forbid, actually calling her mother.


If texting is too cumbersome, then conventional e-mail is "is too formal," Zuckerberg says; too much of a "cognitive load" for young people accustomed to instantaneous back-and-forth.

"Think of the friction of trying to think of the e-mail address and think of a subject line, write 'Hey Mom,' at the top and 'Love, Mark' at the bottom," he explained at his Q & A on Monday with reporters.

The friction? The cognitive load? The inconvenience of e-mailing Mom?

Zuckerberg said he got the idea for the "seamless" system from conversations with teenagers. That's the demographic now driving our communications modes. They want informal, immediate and intense, "without having to do any work at all," he said.

So the service will offer a running transcript of every conversation, "a rich history of you and your friends," Zuckerberg called it. And a way to be reminded of every insult that ever passed between you, long after that ugly flash feud ends and you're back to smiley faces again.

Ever better, it has a social prioritizing system — think high school cliques — that allows important messages (those from your Facebook friends) to enter your inbox and funnels the rest to a box labeled "other."

" 'Other' isn't stuff you hate," Zuckerberg explained. "It's just stuff that's not super important. Like bank bills."

Spoken like a 26-year-old worth $6.9 billion, to a crowd that won't learn what a "cognitive load" really is until they start paying their own smart phone bills.

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