Facebook made yet another big announcement today. The company introduced a new communications systems aimed at enhancing digital dialogue between friends and family. It isn't yet live, but you can request to be an early user of the new system here.  To get a sense of what Facebook's new messaging platform is about, check out its official 4-minute video at the end of this blog post.

Since it involves a new Facebook.com email address, some people shrugged the new functionality off as a weak email tool.  They're right — but that's like complaining an apple makes a poor orange.  The new platform is a poor email client because it isn't intended to be an email client. Instead, this is a new form of communications; as Mark Zuckerberg said (more than once) "This isn't email," and he's right.  Here's why it's worth paying attention to the new Facebook messaging platform:

  • It's a Gmail wounder.  There's been a lot of buzz about Facebook's messaging platform being a "Gmail killer." It isn't, but it's certainly going to wound Gmail and other popular email clients. With the combination of individuals’ social graphs and Facebook’s new functionality, Facebook will succeed at pulling away some time and attention from Gmail, but it won't kill Gmail or other email clients. Facebook isn’t interested in being a management or response tool for your flood of bills, email newsletters or other communications; instead, it’s about facilitating and enhancing your personal relationships.  Facebook wants to be the platform for personal communications and leave the boring stuff to Gmail and others. 
  • Facebook is responding to privacy concerns. Facebook announced it will not utilize the content of users' personal messages to target advertising.  This is surprising, considering doing so is typical among Web-based email clients; both Gmail and Yahoo Mail scan users' email messages for keywords in order to better serve relevant advertising.  At some point Facebook may do so as well, but not now. Why not? Because Facebook knows it has to earn more trust. It’s size and increasing importance to consumers’ private communications means it has to proceed with caution at monetizing consumer data.  For now, Facebook is content to have more people spend more time sending and receiving messages, and that means more page views, ad impressions and revenue.
  • Kids will lead engagement, but adults will follow. The new Facebook messaging system will seem as comfortable as an old pair of shoes to kids who are already accustomed to communicating in brief bits of text that are threaded together within their favorite SMS applications. (As I noted in my last blog post, the average teen sends 3,339 texts per month.)  But while kids may take to the new messaging platform like girls to a Justin Bieber concert, it won’t take long for adults to join them; that’s because adults have an even greater need for messaging simplification. Managing a plethora of inboxes and digital communications channels has grown tiring, and Facebook looks to capture time from overworked adults who want to focus on people, not technology.
  • Once again, it reinforces that Facebook is for friends. With each new feature, Facebook is making clear it is intended as a place to connect with real friends, not manage thousands of soft relationships.  The new messaging platform will be overwhelming to people who have “friended” thousands of people on Facebook.  Not only will the benefits of Facebook messaging be lost on someone trying to manage thousands of streams, but it also eliminates one of the key benefits Facebook is offering — a spam-free, highly personalized dashboard of communications with people who most matter. 
  • Facebook isn’t done innovating. My Twitter friend Steve Furman recently said to me, “Nothing kills innovation like success.”  He’s right, it takes strong leadership to keep investing in innovation after the war is won, but it’s necessary (because the war is never really won).  Just look at MySpace — once the king of the social media hill, it stopped developing new features and bled users as Facebook out-innovated it. But Facebook is not sitting on its laurels.  Having amassed 500 million users, 700 billion minutes per month of users' time and 30 billion pieces of content each month, it would be darn easy for Facebook to start relaxing and enjoying its place as the second most trafficked Web site in the world.  Instead, it keeps seeking ways to make the platform a more usable and essential place for managing relationships, and that promises to make 2011 an interesting year for marketers and users alike.