The power of social network monopoly...

... and how it can be used to persuade people to use an inferior product (or "why I hate Facebook messages") 

A while back I blogged on the idea that social networking sites might have a greater tendency towards monopoly than previous computer software and applications (including the archetypal examples of Microsoft and Google). Basically the argument was thus: Social networks sites, by their very nature, rely on... well... social networks. Therefore you don't just choose the site that is "best" - measured by its capabilities - but also for the network that resides on there. Furthermore, once a critical mass of people have joined a site, it becomes incredibly hard for new start ups to get a foothold, regardless of how good their product is. The problem with this, of course, is the network becomes more significant than the service, and people end up settling for second-rate software solutions.

OK, I admit this is a personal rant based on my prejudices (and some people might want to leap in and defend it), but, ladies and gentlemen, I give you exhibit one: Facebook messages, Facebook's internal mailing system. Actually, this is an especially interesting example, because there has been quite a lot of comment on the fact that younger Internet users are abandoning older applications - most notably email - and instead relying on social networking sites for communications. Facebook messages would therefore seem to be a direct replacement and be a very important application. Based purely on personal experience, some of my friends (I would have to add they tend to be friends who are a bit younger than I am) have started to use it as their default mode of communication. But when I sit and think about it objectively, that's actually quite a strange thing to be doing, because, compared to email, Facebook messages is a massively inferior product.

Actually, that's not enitrely fair, as I can see why people do it. Due to the fact it relies on your personal social network, it is astonishingly easy to use. You simply type the first few letters of the name of your friend and you get a list of possibles which you can select from. Of course, you can do this with a well run email address book, but Facebook does it all for you, so there is no need to do any work organising it. Additionally, you'll never get any spam. And, of course, the very fact the mail interface is embedded in Facebook, the place where you organise your social life, store photos and videos of friends, and join groups with those who share your interests, makes it very convenient.

But that is where the advantages end. The message exchanges are strictly linear in construction - there is no forwarding option, for example. Once you have started an exchange, you cannot add people to it at a later point. There is no mechanism for filing messages. Instead you just have one big intray, with the most recent message at the top. You cannot download your messages onto a client, as there is no support for IMAP or POP mail services. This also makes messages much harder to view on a phone or a blackberry-type device. Nor can you set up autoforwarding to take messages into another account. Likewise, there is no autoreply. These are all features that email users have come to take for granted, but don't exist on Facebook messages. It seems in some cases then, that social network does indeed trump functionality.

[Originally published on