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Mark Zuckerberg today announced a new chat/IM/email client which his company will roll out over the next few months.  (Source: TechCrunch)

The superclient will be available to mobile phone users soon -- just beware, Facebook will likely mine your conversations.  (Source: TNW)
Company eagerly awaits the opportunity to expand its data set and further monetize your online behavior

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 advertisers. 

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 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 its homepage.

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 pulled in.

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 new service.

Altruism?  Hardly...

Google has certainly drawn some criticism for its mining of user data.  However, such criticisms pale in comparison to those leveled against Facebook.

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 problems. 

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 interesting info.

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.

But 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.

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RE: Not my cup of tea, but.....
By Tony Swash on 11/16/2010 10:12:19 AM , Rating: 2
Who's the more foolish? The fool or the fools that follow him?

I think that it's wrong to just dismiss millions of people as fools just because they choose something you would not. Not morally wrong (although is does come across as a bit insulting) but wrong in the sense that it closes off any real opportunity to understand better what is really happening in the world.

I wrestled with this a lot myself back in the 1990's as I watched the world being taken over by a laughably inferior operating system, Windows, and thought people must be deluded or barmy to choose such an awful system. But the painful truth was that millions of people were choosing that system and not choosing the one I thought was so obviously superior, for very real reasons. Those reasons did not apply to me but they were real and not false for millions of other people. I regretted that they had made, what I considered to be, the worse choice but in order to really understand what was happening I could not just dismiss it.

I think the same applies to phenomena such as Facebook.

Facebook does nothing for me.

I keep trying to get into it because so many of friends have but I just cannot see what people get out of it. I much prefer the web and emails and I think the Facebook interface is ghastly.

But I have to accept that that is just me. Hundreds of millions of other people really, really like Facebook. That makes Facebook important and something worth trying to understand, which means trying to understand why something one doesn't like (may actually actively dislike) has significant merit for other people.

Its dangerously easy to dismiss the choices of millions but the cost for doing so is to shut off greater knowledge about why the world is as it is.

RE: Not my cup of tea, but.....
By Tony Swash on 11/16/2010 1:00:14 PM , Rating: 2
The thing that really astonished me was that I was watching a fly on the wall documentary on UK TV last night that follows the day to day work of cops in a small English town. Really excellent documentary series. This episode was about the cops who actually answer emergency calls. It turns out that the number of calls to the police emergency number has dramatically increased as more and more people, mostly young, have started calling the cops for the most inane and seemingly trivial reasons.

What really shocked me was when the cops said that a large proportion of these trivial call-outs were to do with Facebook!

The clip from the documentary about Facebook is here

(Not sure if you view this outside the UK)

It seems that there are lots of threats and cyber bullying on Facebook and people call the cops asking for help. And the amazing things is the cops do actually respond and go visiting people to say please tone it down. The cop's reasonable justification was that most of the calls are just silly but every so often so one is actually harmed as a result of a Facebook argument or threat so they try to nip it in the bud.

I had no idea that Facebook had infiltrated the day to day popular culture of so many young people, and the lives of what can only be called low life or dysfunctional people.

I think I lead a sheltered life

"It looks like the iPhone 4 might be their Vista, and I'm okay with that." -- Microsoft COO Kevin Turner

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