Release Candidate One with Chris Clark

Crotchety Old Power Users

Facebook’s email is dramatically less featured than the mainframe Darpanet email program I first used in 1989. Maybe I’m too old to understand the significance of Facebook’s interface, but so far it seems to be a giant step backwards for email users.

Mark Hurst

Yep, Facebook’s Messages interface is a giant step backward for email users. But nobody born in the eighties (Facebook’s once-core audience) uses email the way the earlier generation does.

When I was in high school my friends and I had a years-long email thread where we’d gossip, share links, and share pictures. For a small group of friends in a mass conversation it was perfectly adequate. Really the only problems were related to concurrency — a conversation could make a quick turn before you’d finished writing your reply, and without Push email you wouldn’t be notified that somebody had beat you to the punchline.

As we graduated high school, then university, and found our way into the workplace, things changed. People’s offices blocked access to personal email accounts, and substituting them for work email accounts meant dealing with attachment blockers, swear-word filters, and a lack of access outside of office hours. Since I’m a dork, we migrated to an online forum and have never looked back. But if I weren’t the kid with the know-how to install server-side software, you can bet we’d be using Facebook.

Email has grown gnarly in the decades past, as we’ve started receiving dozens or hundreds of spam and bacn messages a day. I have multiple server side rules and filters just to keep it in check, and an inbox policy of flagging anything I care about before running a slightly-modified version of John Gruber’s Inbox Sweeper to keep things tidy.

Reply-all gaffes, top-posting etiquette, plaintext versus HTML, attachment limits, inbox limits… everybody hits them. By comparison the simplicity and clarity of Facebook mail is impressive. A Facebook message requires (privacy controls pending) a symmetrically-acknowledged relationship between parties, and on top of that spam-murdering convenience it’s self-threading, low friction, and lightweight.

In a nutshell, Facebook is better than email unless you’re some kind of email expert. And for email’s successor to support all the expert features of email, none of its myriad problems would be solved.

It’s been a recurring theme this week, but the Pro users of yesteryear’s products, the people with the biggest investment in old technologies, are not the people who should be calling the shots in the design of their successors. These are the people who complain that an iPad can’t have third party software installed from anywhere but the App Store, ignoring the massive convenience and security gains the policy affords average users. These are the people who are still using slotted screwdrivers and Edison light fixtures and manual transmission cars.