Ever wonder why you don’t get a lot of spam in your Facebook inbox? It’s because the site quietly routs messages from people you aren’t friends with into a separate folder, cryptically labeled “Other.” That works really well when it comes to sparing you from unwanted mail. And it’s obviously important to Facebook, which crushed MySpace partly because the latter was strewn with spam. But as Elizabeth Weingarten explained in Slate in 2011, Facebook’s filter sometimes works a little too well, shielding you from messages you would have actually really liked to see.
Now the social network is testing a new way to solve that problem: letting strangers pay a fee to send a message directly to your inbox. On Thursday, Mashable noticed an amusing example of the scheme in action. If you’re in the test group and you try to message Mark Zuckerberg, the site will offer you the chance to send your missive straight to his inbox—for a cool $100 (see screenshot above). A Facebook spokesperson explained today that the company is “testing some extreme price points to see what works to filter spam.” Messages to the inboxes of less-notable personages, meanwhile, will start at $1.
Pundits have been quick to mock the pay-to-message scheme as a pathetic or desperate attempt to squeeze out a little more revenue. But they’re missing the point—and the bigger picture.
As Facebook noted in December, the test is part of a broader update to Facebook’s messaging services, which now bring together your messages, chats, text messages (via Facebook Messenger), and emails in a single conversation stream on the site. That part of the announcement was overshadowed, but it’s the key to understanding the company’s innovative new spam-filtering strategy. Both are part of a long-term grand plan to build Facebook into a do-it-all social-communications utility.
When it comes to direct personal communication, people employ a hodgepodge of different programs: perhaps Yahoo or Gmail for emails, Google Talk or AIM for chats, SMS or Apple iMessage for text messages, Skype or FaceTime for video calls. Both Google and Apple have made some inroads toward collecting most or all of those tools under their own umbrellas. But Facebook wants to go a step further.
Back in November 2010, Mark Zuckerberg held an event at company headquarters to unveil Facebook Messages, a service that some hypemongers billed as a “Gmail-killer.” Email, he pronounced, was too slow. Instead, Facebook would offer all of its users an @facebook.com address that would serve as a “social inbox” for chats, text messages, and Facebook messages, which have no subject line and can be sent just by hitting “enter.” As a Facebook engineer explained in an illuminating blog post, the ultimate vision was to replace phone numbers, email addresses, and chat handles with a single integrated service that lets you “select friends by name and … share with them instantly.” The engineer added:
It seems wrong that an email message from your best friend gets sandwiched between a bill and a bank statement. It’s not that those other messages aren’t important, but one of them is more meaningful. With new Messages, your Inbox will only contain messages from your friends and their friends. All other messages will go into an Other folder where you can look at them separately.
The problem, of course, is that no one actually looks at the Other folder, and an inbox that’s limited to your Facebook friends will never be an all-in-one communications tool. If it is ever to achieve that, it’s essential that Facebook find a way to let through important messages from strangers alongside those from your friends.
An algorithmic spam filter, like those used by most email programs, is one way to keep out unwanted messages. But most people still find their personal inboxes jammed with marketing mail and other unsolicited items that distract from the messages they really care about. When it comes to cutting down on those, Facebook has an advantage over every other company: You’ve already told it who your friends are. That means that it can treat everyone else as a stranger by default—and ensure that they can reach you only if it’s really important. That’s where the pay-per-message scheme comes in.
Don’t want strangers to always have to pay to reach you on Facebook? One option is to familiarize yourself a bit more with that pesky “Other” folder. But another overlooked part of Facebook’s December announcement was that it began allowing users to toggle between “strict filtering” and “basic filtering,” the latter of which lets in messages from a wider circle of users. The $100-to-messsage-Zuckerberg option represents yet another layer of sophistication: The more well-known you are, the more likely it is that strangers will want to contact you. By implementing a sliding fee scale based on your popularity on the site, Facebook can regulate the flow of unsolicited messages to a level that’s manageable for everyone. It may now have the smartest spam filter on the planet.
After a lot of initial hype in 2010, Facebook’s big push into messaging has mostly flown beneath the radar, with many perhaps writing it off as a failure. But there have been hints all along the way that the company itself still sees this as a big deal, and isn’t giving up. Recall that last July it switched users’ default contact on the site to their @facebook.com address. The move infuriated people, but it also left observers scratching their heads: Who in the world uses their @facebook.com address on any kind of regular basis? Tech blogs circulated how-to guides on how to change it right back.
But if the company can leapfrog its rivals when it comes to integrating different forms of messaging and separating the wheat from the chaff, that @facebook.com address just might come in handy after all.