Media: All about ... Facebook Messages

Will its new 'e-mail' service create an exclusive internet?

It has not been an ideal few months for the digerati's militant tendency. This is a rum crowd, volatile in their pursuit of paradox - for, though they may be emotionally elitist and obscurantist, they claim to have unimpeachable neophile credentials; yet they inhabit a curiously 17th century mindset.

They are the new Diggers or Levellers: against property, industry, advertising and the consumer economy. And, in particular, they are violently opposed to annexation or enclosure of (what they believe to be) the modern equivalent of common land, digital terrain they insist should be guaranteed in perpetuity by some sort of notion of universal human rights.

They are, in short, open internet nuts. Not so long ago, they loved Facebook. Now, with the conspiratorial ardour of those who feel they have been betrayed, they are preparing to burn effigies of Mark Zuckerberg, its founder.

Because last week, Facebook launched a vastly improved version of Messages - a blatant attempt, some say, to create "an exclusive internet within the internet". Facebook's 500 million active users (one thirteenth of the world's population) spend an inordinate amount of time on the site and, having made it their digital home, they import all sorts of functionality in the form of apps.

Traditionally, one of the main reasons for popping out was to use e-mail. No longer. The new service is an e-mail app on steroids, integrating, as it does, chat, SMS and instant messaging.

On some reckonings, Facebook's membership includes just about every economically productive individual in the Western world. If Facebook becomes the default software platform for this group's every digital desire, then it basically owns the new economy. Even the once mighty Google will be forced to pay homage.

Zuckerberg, who never knowingly underplays an opportunity for hyperbole, described it as "the way the future should work".

And he may well be right.

It's certainly further evidence that the free internet could turn out to have been a delusional fantasy all along. Because this messaging initiative follows a late summer and autumn in which we've witnessed the seemingly unstoppable march of the app (and, in particular, the iPad app).

This, famously, prompted Wired to publish the obituary of the open internet, back in August. Even The Guardian, an institution intellectually dominated by its editor, Alan Rusbridger, a man once regarded as a pin-up poster boy for neo 17th century philosophers everywhere, is now charging for stuff online.

One thing is sure: this latest initiative confirms Facebook as the phenomenon of the age. For the next few months, at any rate.

1. Facebook Messages integrates chat, texts and e-mail into one location - and users now have the option of creating a public e-mail address (@fb.com) that allows them to receive messages while they're on Facebook. The rival web platform e-mail service with most to worry about following this launch is Google's Gmail.

2. Facebook has had a supremely confident year. It passed the 500 million active users milestone back in July, up from 400 million in February. Unofficial estimates are that this figure is now well in advance of 600 million. It has more than 26 million active users in the UK alone - and the average UK Facebook user spends almost eight hours a month on the site. A couple of wobbly PR episodes failed to dent growth: it has ridden out privacy controversies more or less successfully, for instance, by launching a new safety centre system back in May.

3. Ad revenues have been storming ahead too. It accounts for one quarter of all display ads served on the internet (its nearest rival, Yahoo!, takes 11 per cent of the market by volume) and, according to estimated forecasts (Facebook itself doesn't release audited figures), ad revenues for 2010 will exceed $1.4 billion.

4. In early November, Mike Jones, MySpace's chief executive, effectively conceded that, following a recent relaunch that put content creation to the fore, MySpace was no longer a social media site. Last week, it capitulated even further by launching "Mashup with Facebook", which integrates Facebook Connect on to the MySpace homepage and will lead to the proliferation of Facebook Like buttons across the site. Facebook now utterly dominates and defines the social media space.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

CONSUMERS

- Google insiders have taken to describing Facebook as the "internet's biggest cul-de-sac". There are also those who describe Facebook as the "third largest country in the world", adding, apropos of nothing, that it has no elected government.

- In reality, it is neither an evolutionary aberration, nor a rogue state on the march. It is undeniably big, however - and recent initiatives are likely to see recent growth levels maintained.

- Some argue it's therefore more important than ever that Facebook, which has a patchy record where privacy issues are concerned, is not tempted to abuse its position.

- But these things are cyclical. The internet's first successful company, America Online, which mutated into AOL, essentially offered a "walled garden" approach to the internet. Its dominance proved transient.

ADVERTISERS

- As it continues to corner the market, Facebook will inevitably loom ever larger in the minds of advertisers - especially those (and they are legion) diverting increasing chunks of budget into PR activity in social media spaces.

- Neil Kleiner, the head of social at Havas Media, suggests that the new Messages service will have a limited short-term impact for advertisers. But he adds: "What it does do is continue what seems to be a long-term aim of turning the Facebook website into a portal. In creating a single ecosystem that people find more useful, they'll spend more time on the site and will ultimately be more engaged. So it has significant implications for its development."

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