For every perk there's always a price.
On Monday, the world's largest social networking site announced what
it's been up to the last several months. As widely reported, the company
had been cooking up an email service that was dubbed
"Project Titan" internally.
So what does this mean for users? The perk is that you soon can elect to access a perhaps unprecedented platform that integrates SMS
text messages, instant messages, and email into a single socially-minded
"modern messaging system"
The price is that Facebook will likely mine your conversations, searching them for
juicy nuggets with which to target ads to you. The company has hardly
shown a good track record in defending user privacy, with its CEO Mark
Zuckerberg insisting that users by and large no longer care about privacy. The
company isn't out to get its users -- but it is out to make a lot of money,
which it can do by selling its observations of users' online activities to
Old Email = Boring
Mr. Zuckerberg started his highly anticipated keynote with a jab at
traditional email clients like Gmail. Mind you, he didn't actually say
that he thought email was a boring, stodgy medium. Rather he said
that he and his staff talk with high school students to stay current on what is
cool, and that when it comes to email, the kids think, "It's too formal."
He says that the kids find the whole idea of email -- addresses,
carbon-copies, blind carbon-copies, subject fields, greeting, form closings,
and more -- to be overly complex and superfluous. They want to
message fast using things like SMS texts and IMs.
So does the Big Z hate Gmail? Quite to the contrary he says that
despite what the kids say, he loves Gmail. He comments, "I think
Gmail is a really good product."
And he adds, "[Project Titan] is not an email killer. This is a
messaging experience that includes email as one part of it. This is the way
that the future should work."
Email? SMS? IM? What Exactly is Titan?
Facebook has devoted 15 engineers to the project -- more than any
project in its history, according to Facebook. The result is a unified inbox that's optimized both for the
desktop and mobile setting.
The new service is build around an email client, which currently
supports POP and will soon support IMAP. If you want a new email,
Facebook will happily give you a @facebook.com email address. If you want
to use an existing account, you can do that as well.
Details are scarce about how Facebook will strip away the
"complex" details of standard email, but the company did share some
specifics. It will grab your contacts from Facebook to create whitelists
of people you can mass message. It will also show conversation threads
rather than individual emails, much like its existing messaging service within
The system also works with IMs (details on which are scarce) and SMS
texts. Again, all of these items are dumped into conversation threads
when they are received. Facebook messages will, unsurprisingly, also be
Dedicated apps will make access your inbox on your iPhone or Android
easy to do. Facebook plans updates to its existing apps to include the
Google has certainly drawn some criticism for its mining of user
data. However, such criticisms pale in comparison to those leveled
The company has had a hard time giving users the ability to keep their
data private from each other, much less from the site's data collection
internals. Nobody knows exactly how much data the site collects on its
users, but it is clear that it collects a lot of data.
In his presentation Mr. Zuckerberg didn't spend much breath on
privacy. He was full of bold predictions of how easy to use and
effortless his new superclient was. But by not discussing privacy in
depth, one must assume the worst in that Facebook plans to mine your texts,
IMs, and emails, searching for useful data.
Is this a bad thing?
No, not necessarily. It's a very good thing for Facebook and for
Mr. Zuckerberg's bank account. And for users it could even be a good
thing, as they might be more interested in the target ads that the service
serves. However, there is also a potential for abuse that is made worse
by Facebook's lack of transparency in its data mining practices.
What it boils down to is trust. When it comes to privacy
Facebook has broken the users' trust several times and then
tried to make amends. But customers may be wary, remembering past
Of course Facebook is just looking out for its own best interests
here. And as they say, customer beware. But it's important to
remember that most customers don't even know what data mining is, let alone
know that Facebook may be autonomously reading through their emails for
At the end of the day most never will.
Project Titan will receive an official name soon and be rolled out
slowly over the next few months, according to Mr. Zuckerberg. And it will
likely be a tremendous hit. Facebook says that it already has 350 million users of its pseudo-email client
within its social networking site. It hopes that its new email client
will draw many more users even.
users who are wary of Facebook's data collection may wish to think twice before
jumping onboard the site's new superclient. As they say, the devil is in
the details -- and chances are Facebook will never let us see those details.