Facebook and the Email Apocalypse

So in case you haven’t heard the rumors, supposedly Facebook will release “Project Titan” on Monday. As rumor has it, they will be introducing a web-based email system that’s built into Facebook. It will replace traditional “messaging” on Facebook with a full-fledged email system. It will likely include your own @facebook.com email address. Some are calling this a Gmail killer. I tend to agree with the other side, who find that assessment laughable. Of course, by “laughable” I don’t mean that it will be unsuccessful. On the contrary, I’m sure it will be quite popular as far as numbers go. It’s just that I remember email before Gmail and how much they changed the game. I am highly skeptical that Facebook would even be able match Gmail in terms of utility and ease-of-use, and I find it laughable that they would be able to innovate enough to draw me away from Gmail’s clutches.

No doubt there is a market for integrating email into Facebook. As a user of both Gmail and Facebook, I got to thinking about what might happen in the coming months given what I know about the past.

First, Facebook email will almost certainly create a rift among emailers. To me, the division will be between those who use email as a tool and those who use it as a toy. I could easily see some of my friends and family, young and old, who spend the majority of their time behind Facebook’s walled garden anyway, integrate Facebook’s inbox into their life and slowly forget about their prior email addresses. “Email that’s separate from my Facebook account? That’s so 2010.”

In fact, that’s kind of Facebook’s plan, right? The whole goal is to take over the Internet by making their own Internet inside of Facebook. Do you want to play a game? Why go to another site when you can play lots of them on Facebook? Do you want to share photos with your friends? Why go to another site when you can do it on Facebook? Their whole goal is that you never have to leave, and adding a way to communicate with the “outsiders” will take away another major reason to leave their site.

But as I alluded to earlier, those of us who actually use email to communicate with 10, 20, 50, or even 500 people a day, we want a system that is made specifically to make that process more pleasurable. That’s what Gmail is, and I find it nearly impossible that Facebook will be able to rival Gmail’s feature-set. Remember, that’s not even their goal. Their goal is to make it functional enough to keep you from leaving their site. Ever.

It’s one thing when Facebook adds a feature I won’t use, but I’m not sure their integrated email system won’t actually be detrimental to their platform as a whole. I mean, do you remember email in 2001? (or even 2007?) In addition to loads of emails offering me all sorts of adult content and attachments that would infect my computer with viruses, there were links to sites that would steal my banking credentials and hijack my Paypal account. Oh, and that’s not to mention the deluge of weekly email forwards pleading with any and every excuse to have me forward this chain letter to my entire address book. Gmail has largely hidden spam from me.

Does Facebook have a plan in place for when the spamming masses come down on their email system with phishing links and social engineered trojan horses? Because I hear about enough people now whose Facebook account and email accounts get hacked. Wait until their email is their Facebook. It sounds like a recipe for disaster. I shudder thinking about this, but imagine the eventual hacks that start messaging all 600 of your “friends” and writing spam ads on their walls. Won’t that be fun for your girlfriend from 6th grade who you haven’t talked to since junior high and your boss at work, both of whom are your “friends” on Facebook.

My solace lies in my apocalyptic hope that this venture shows Facebook for the house of cards that it is. Facebook has been largely preserved because of their ability to keep spam out, aside from user-selected spam. By opening up their floodgates to the world of spammers, the site will become much less navigable by average folks, which could cause a sizable exodus. I wonder how people will react when they realize that so much of their lives that they have poured into Facebook over the past months and years is lost in that walled garden? And where will these users go when they are left alone in this largely unexplored Internet.

So what do you think? What have I missed? What good or bad will come from Facebook’s integration of an email system?

Back to the roots of Firefox

I started using Firefox for pretty much one reason: it correctly interpreted HTML and CSS (the code that web pages are written in). When I was learning to design web sites in high school and college, Internet Explorer was annoying because it doesn’t conform to web standards set forth by the W3C. It was a fairly ubiquitous browser that set its own standards for how the web should work. Firefox was the first browser I had come across that took web standards seriously and did their best to interpret a website’s code properly. From a design perspective, it meant I could code my sites according to the W3C’s specifications and not have to cater them to individual browsers.

With the birth of Internet Explorer 7 and now Internet Explorer 8, Microsoft has taken some steps to conform with these web standards. At the same time, Mozilla’s Firefox browser has gained significant ground against Internet Explorer, especially with the younger generation. This is at least in part due to the fact that fun new websites are designed to work best when viewed in a browser that is standards-compliant. At the same time, Mozilla has worked on improving the browsing experience by adding fantastic new features to their browser. Now, over 10 years after the finalization of the HTML 4 specification, the W3C is hard at work ironing out the details of an HTML 5 specification. Firefox is first in line to implement some of these exciting new design techniques in their soon-to-be-released Firefox 3.5, as can be seen on the Mozhacks blog. I’m excited to see Mozilla getting back to the roots of what makes Firefox the best browser on the Internet. Their latest browser is not only blindingly fast, but it’s helping designers advance the web.

Curious what you have to look forward to in Firefox 3.5? My personal favorite things are being able to embed a font in my website so that I can type in any font I want, the ability to play embedded OGG audio and Theora video directly so that I can avoid using Adobe Flash, and some crazy SVG stuff. Check out more at hacks.mozilla.org!

The “truth” behind Wikipedia

I’ve heard a lot talk recently about how Wikipedia is bad because “anyone can change anything they want” in an article. A friend of the family has said it, and even one of my teachers said it. I actually become very frustrated by this every time I hear it. It’s mainly because I find Wikipedia to be an incredibly powerful tool and one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the “success” of the Internet. And I’m not alone. I know a number of students and young people who feel the same way. The problem with this mistrust seems to be stemming from some adults who have lived without Wikipedia for much of their lives. I’ve been pondering this over the past few weeks, and then I came across an article today in Technology Review about this very subject.

It was an interesting read for sure, and it brings up some interesting issues about citations. I think the avid nay-sayers generally do not fully understand Wikipedia and the fact-checking that’s involved with the website. I think they generally believe that some 15 year old kid is sitting there filling what he knows about argumentum ad populum (thanks /.) or some crazy person is injecting extreme ideas into a serious article. The fact is simply that this isn’t the case. If an article is found to have something disreputable in it, it’s tagged as such (which is clearly visible to the reader). Since Wikipedia is not willing or able to judge truth from fiction, they rely on the verifiability of questionable statements. As the article notes, this can cause problems because even if a Wikipedia entry is about you, a verifiable reference must be found that can corroborate your claim. They have no way of proving that you are who you say you are, and thus they need evidence. A significant point for the scientific community is that trustworthy evidence is largely based on journal articles, university publications, and university-level textbooks before things like fact-checked sections of newspapers and magazines.

Even with citations, however, things can be wrong or misrepresented, so of course it’s always necessary to take you read on Wikipedia (or anywhere) with a grain of salt. Still, I find that Wikipedia articles tend to be more accurate and less biased than some news agencies’ work. References even act as a way to remove bias by limiting your assertions to something with verifiable proof. Then people can base judgment on the quality of the proof, not on the persuasiveness of the Wikipedia writer.

I guess the underlying point of this post is that you shouldn’t judge something unless you fully understand it. Wikipedia is highly accurate, and the proof that it’s based on is one of its strongest qualities. Question it. Critique it. But, please, don’t just dismiss it because “it can be edited by anybody.” “Anybody” still needs to have verifiable proof of their statements. Wikipedia has made a more profound impact on my life than probably anything else on the Internet. Knowledge should be free, and Wikipedia has aggregated mountains of knowledge that is both easy to access and free for the taking. Gone are the days of lugging out a 20 volume set of Encyclopaedia Britannica only to find out that your version is out-dated. Typing a simple wp Reyes Syndrome into my Firefox address bar brings up most of the latest information instantly. I have gathered immense knowledge over the past half-decade from the giant brain that is Wikipedia. I am (and will be) indebted to it forever, and I hope it never goes away. I have made a promise to myself that once I’ve graduated from school, I will make a significant financial donation to the Wikimedia Foundation and probably another one once I’ve finished residency. The world needs Wikipedia. Go read a few of its articles on something you’d like to know more about. You’re bound to catch a glimpse of how wide its berth of knowledge is. Wikipedia is not just some little tool that can be brushed aside and ignored. It’s a “Google”; it’s a game-changer. And it deserves to be. Please, don’t take it for granted.

Preserving our history

I recently read that Jackson Browne released a sequel to his popular album Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1 from a few years ago. It’s one of my favorite albums of the past few years, and this was coming from someone who had no idea who Jackson Browne really was when I first heard it. If you haven’t heard that album, it’s worth the $8.99 on Amazon mp3, so just buy it. His sequel album, aptly titled Solo Acoustic Vol. 2, was released a few weeks ago, and I will need to download it. However, considering what little I knew about Mr. Browne was derived from this album, I decided it would be a good idea to learn a little more about him from Wikipedia. While reading about his fantastic song called The Pretender (lyrics), I noticed a link at the bottom to a YouTube video of him singing it live. It was great.

And then I saw it, right there in the YouTube sidebar. It was a live concert performance of his song Load-Out/Stay from 1978. You don’t understand. Ever since I heard it a few years ago, this has been one of my top 3 favorite songs of all time. And I have a LOT of favorite music. You can see him singing it, right there on stage at his piano. And then it dawned on me. Without the Internet, I would never have been able to see this footage. I’ve heard the song a thousand times, but to see him sitting there, 30 years old with his California hippie haircut, singing it? I’ll let it speak for itself. Sometimes we lose sight of the Internet and what it can be. I think this speaks volumes.

Man I wish they still made music like that. If you’d like to hear more Jackson Browne check out These Days (or the original cut, sung by Nico) (lyrics).