There's a big announcement coming from Facebook on Monday. It is rumored that Facebook will unveil a new email and messaging platform, although the announcement could also or alternatively relate to mobile chat or Skype. If Facebook tackles email (which seems inevitable, whether next week or next year), it promises to change the way consumers think about digital communications.
If that sounds like a big statement about a company that's already had a profound effect on consumer communications, consider for a moment how the Web changed information gathering. When people needed information prior to the advent of the Internet, the operative question wasn't just "What do I need?" but "How do I get it?" The "how" affected everything: If I turn to the encyclopedia on my shelf, I might get old information. If I turn to a single source, I might get biased information. If I need to get into my car and drive to a library, it will take a great deal of time and effort. And if the "how" was sufficiently difficult or murky, I might simply give up.
The Internet changed that — it provided a single "how." The browser became our window to whatever data we needed. Of course, we still needed to find that data on the World Wide Web (which is where Google and other Web 1.0 solutions stepped in), but once "how" turned to "what," it changed everything. Consumers who saw the benefit of instantaneous access overcame the relatively extreme challenges of early Internet adoption (such as slow speeds, expensive PCs and costly ISPs) and adopted the Web in huge numbers in a relatively short period of time. That's the power of eliminating "how."
Of course, digital communication is not nearly as complex as data gathering in the pre-Internet era, but it's still awfully messy. Email, texts, instant messages, tweets, DMs, status updates, LinkedIn messages, Facebook messages, voice mail — make it stop! Ever send a message you received in one inbox to another of your inboxes? Ever get a communication from a friend and subsequently lost it because you cannot recall in which channel it reached you? Ever send an email to remind yourself to respond to something that happened in Facebook? Ever wanted to share a tweet with a friend not yet registered on Twitter and had to think about how to make it happen? It hardly seems as if we've entered the golden age of integrated communications that was promised. Forrester has coined a term for this phenomenon: The Splinternet.
This plethora of channels and tools is turning digital communication from "what" to "how." When I want to contact a friend, I have to consider which channel to use based on the venues preferred by him or her, how private the communication must be, who else might be included in the communication, how quickly I want it to arrive, how pressing the information may be, where I want the message to reach them, and on and on. The complexity of digital communications has turned "what" into "how" for most of us. (Kids cut through it all by simply using SMS for most of their communications — the average teen sends 3,339 texts per month!)
And into this hurricane of communications channels may come Facebook. Done right, Facebook wouldn't just offer consumers a new email address and client but would instead integrate much of the clutter. In the same way mobile OSes like Windows Mobile and Palm Pre have sought to give users a single view of communications and contacts, Facebook could integrate a variety of channels into a single contact and communication management system. It wouldn't matter whether that friend sent you a status update or an email — it'd be waiting for you in your Facebook inbox. And when you need to reach someone, there may be no question of "how" — Facebook can reach your friends whether they're out in the world with their mobile phone, sitting at their desk with a PC or lounging on the sofa perusing their tablet.
We'll have to wait for what Facebook announces on Monday, but I expect we'll see a first step toward easier and more integrated communications. Consumer and privacy advocates will again be on high alert for how Facebook is insinuating itself into every aspect of consumers' lives, but true integration could bring a level of ease, productivity and empowerment to communication that we haven't seen since the days when email was the only digital communications channel in town and most everyone had a single address. Ah, the good ol' simple days of yesteryear!