Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Facebook's Not-So-New Messaging System: It Gave Me a Scare! (And it still scares me.)

In this entry, asterisks indicate a statement that is not 100% correct, i.e. a simplification.  They do not correspond to footnotes but their meaning will be explained later in the entry; just be patient.  In addition, in the first sentence when I say "November 15," I can't be 100% sure it was really November 15; that's just when a lot of Mashable Facebook Twitter Wikipedia YouTube  articles came out about it.

On November 15 of 2010, Facebook Facebook Twitter Wikipedia YouTube  launched their not-so-new messaging system (not-so-new because it's already May).  They rolled it out to the general public in February.  And the reason why I haven't mentioned it until now is because I wasn't a tech blogger back then. Wink

You may not have upgraded to the new messaging system and thus don't know what I'm talking about.  Here's the link to upgrade.  I think you should learn a little bit about it first though.


The new messaging system is less like email than the old one:  there are no subject lines.  Facebook doesn't think they're necessary and they have a reason for thinking that:  they found that the top three subject lines on Facebook messages were "[No Subject]," "Hi," and "Yo."

Here's a screenshot of a conversation thread in the Messaging System; it's a conversation with my friend "R:"

Conversation Thread

From now on, if I'm messaging "R," even if I start a whole new message, it gets appended at the end of this thread.  If I'm messaging "J," my message is added to the end of the "J" thread, a record of all* the communications "J" and I have had.

And communications is a great word-choice here:  Facebook has integrated chat with messages.  So it all gets mixed up in the conversation threads of the new messaging system:

Conversation Thread Dissection

It was pretty easy to figure out which parts of that thread were typed into this little box…

Message Box

…and which were typed into this one:

Chat Box

Also, you now see this integrated thread in chat boxes.  When you open the chat box for your friend Travis, you see the whole record of all* the communications you and Travis have ever had right there in the chat box:


The arrow in the image above is pointing to the word "Today."  All text below that word is the part of the conversation that took place today.  And I say "the part of the conversation" because Facebook's attitude seems to be that people don't have multiple conversations with the same person:  it's all just one big conversation. Rolling Eyes

Now that I've scratched the surface of the new messaging system—and I've only scratched the surface—let's get into the part of the system that really gave me a scare.

Back before the new messaging system, when I typed text into a chat box, it was my expectation that that text would go away after signing off.  And my expectation was met.  When I typed text into a message box, I knew that that text wouldn't go away after signing off, but when I typed text into a chat box, the conversation would disappear.  And when I say "disappear" I don't mean necessarily disappear from all people's computers:  I know that chat clients accessing Facebook chat are free to save transcripts and people can always copy and paste stuff; no, you'll see that that's not what I'm getting at.

Here's yet another screenshot of what a chat box looks like in the new messaging system; take note of the date that's circled because I'll mention it later:

Chat Box with Date Circled

Here's what happened when I clicked on this person's chat box to talk to them (and I'm talking generically, not about this particular conversation):  immediately, my last communication with them comes into view.  My last communication with them was a long time ago.  It might be something I'm embarrassed about; I might have said something stupid; do I have to be reminded of that just because I want to talk to them now?

And let's talk about that date:  August 24.  Wait… that was before the new messaging system!  So it was before I had the expectation that everything I say to person A and everything I have said will be shoved in my face every time I want to talk to person A.

See this right here…

Chat Box with Part That's a Message Circled

It's a message.  So the expectation I had on August 24 when I wrote that communication actually was not that it would disappear (because I wrote it in a message box not a chat box).

But I had like—the biggest scare of my life when I went to talk to person A and my communications with person A from ancient history were coming back to haunt me.  (August 24, 2010 = ancient history.)

The scare was actually not the communications-coming-back-to-haunt-me themselves but I had the impression that any sort of Facebook communication from pre-new-messaging-system days could potentially come back to haunt me, including those communications that I typed into chat boxes.  I thought that Facebook had been secretly saving our chats on their servers and they were just now popping up with the advent of the new messaging system.

Well, you can be assured that that is not the case.  I figured it out this way:  I distinctly remember my first Facebook chat conversation with a certain person.  This conversation was before the new messaging system.  I went to my inbox and found the conversation thread dedicated to my one big never-ending conversation with this person.  (Remember, Facebook doesn't believe two people can have multiple conversations.)  I scrolled through to find the conversation I distinctly remember having and I couldn't find it.  So Facebook hasn't been secretly storing our chat conversations and they aren't shoving them back in your face.  (But from now on they are.  But not secretly.)

But they are shoving your old messages in your face.  Especially if you're talking to somebody you haven't talked to in a while, like in this screenshot, which was taken on February 26:

Chat Box with Date Circled

(The gap in my communications with that person might not have spanned from August until February as I could've talked to them via chat before the new messaging system came along and it wouldn't be showing up in that box.  Just FYI.)

But being embarrassed about something you said in the past and being uncomfortable when you see it pop into view isn't the only thing that makes Facebook's choice (to show conversation threads in chat boxes) a bad one.

Let me paint a picture for you:

Jonathan's hanging out at Robyn's house.  Robyn's at her computer.  She's on Facebook.  Jonathan's looking at Robyn's screen.  (They were just watching a video together or something like that so this is okay with Robyn.)  Jonathan says, "hey, while you've got Facebook open can you ask Ben something?"  (I would think of the thing that Jonathan wants to ask Ben but I'm not that creative.)  Ben is clearly online in chat right now.  But Robyn has a problem.  Last night, Robyn was talking with Ben, via Facebook chat, and they were talking bad about Jonathan.  (I could do a whole entry on the ill effects of talking-bad-about-people-when-it's-not-absolutely-necessary but that's for another day.)  Robyn can't press that button because if she does, Jonathan will see "yeah, Jonathan can be such a d*@##**k" (or something much worse) right there in the chat box.  Robyn now has to say something stupid like, "why don't you do it from your own account?; I'll log off" and there's a slight chance that Jonathan will say something stupid like, "why?; you don't want to talk to Ben?; what's your problem with Ben?"  That's all pretty mild, but what if it doesn't occur to Robyn that when she opens the chat box "Jonathan can be such a d*@##**k" (or something much worse) is going to pop up? Yeah.

This awkward situation was brought to you either wholly or partly by Facebook.  (The reason why I said "either wholly or partly" is an ethical issue that I don't have time to explain now.)

This type of thing could easily happen even if there aren't people talking bad about each other; even if nobody's doing anything wrong.  What if it's just a private conversation? A perfectly legitimate private conversation.  Do we have to get into examples?  The G-rated one that comes to mind is Robyn was talking to Ben about how she has a crush on Jonathan.

And what is the benefit?  What is the benefit of having yesterday's conversation in today's chat box?  It might be useful to have yesterday's conversation in today's conversation thread; I don't doubt that, but what is the point of the conversation thread appearing in the chat box?   After all, if you want to go to the conversation thread and you're in a chat box, you can click this button at the bottom of the box:

'Go to conversation' Button

The cow's my desktop background.  This is a photo I took of one of our cows at the Farm School.

Anyway, what do you think of the issues brought up today?  Comment in the comments.

And I'm gonna be doing some more posts on the not-so-new Facebook messaging system so stay tuned.