06.25.12

Facebook’s Brazen Switch: User Email Addresses Change to @Facebook.com

In a bid to prop up its unpopular email service, Facebook is quietly shifting the email addresses listed in users’ profiles. Jesse Singal on why the change is emblematic of the company’s attitude toward its customers.

I thought I had my Gmail address listed as my primary email address on Facebook. So imagine my surprise when, clued in by various posts on tech blogs earlier in the day, I flipped to my Facebook profile on Monday to find that people who wanted to email me were directed to the incomprehensible address 2213778@facebook.com.

It appears that I—and countless other users—have been swept up in an under-the-radar effort by Facebook to drum up support for its email platform, which landed with something of a thud when it launched in 2010. So the social networking juggernaut decided it would default users’ email addresses away from whatever they had listed and toward their assigned Facebook aliases, and has been doing so in what appears to be a gradual rollout. (Not everyone’s address has been changed.)

The details of how the switch is being rolled out and who is affected aren’t clear; Facebook did not respond to The Daily Beast’s questions about the switch, instead pointing to a statement reading in part, “As we announced back in April, we’ve been updating addresses on Facebook to make them consistent across our site.” But what is clear is that Facebook took a rather basic piece of personal information and changed it without users’ consent.

The big question here, said Gervase Markham, a tech blogger whose weekend post about having his Facebook profile changed may have launched the sudden sweep of coverage, is “Who controls my presentation of myself on Facebook?”

Facebook’s answer is clear: we do.

The change is being reported in some corners as having occurred over the weekend, but the company pointed journalists to an April 12 news release announcing the change.

This, it is safe to say, was not a notice most Facebook users were aware of.

Harry Lin, executive in residence at the Pasadena-based tech incubator Idealab, said Facebook should have been a lot more proactive about notifying its users of the change. “I really do think the easiest thing for them to have done is just put a notice on everyone’s feed,” said Lin. “Do it several times leading up to the day it was going to happen. It’s very unobtrusive. It’s kind of a friendly way for the company to let us know it’s going to happen. And then when it did happen, everyone [would know] about it. But that’s not how they did it.”

Instead, those users who are aware of the change have been surprised by it. Why the secrecy? Possibly because Facebook realizes there’s been little enthusiasm over its email service, which when it was launched in 2010 was billed as a “Gmail killer.” “I think when most people find out about it most people are going to set [their address] back to whatever it was before,” Lin said. But if they don’t know, they won’t change it, bettering the odds that they’ll get yoked into using Facebook email.

Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy-and-security consultant, pointed out that the move is not unprecedented for a tech giant. In 2010 Google attracted the ire of consumer advocates by defaulting Gmail users into its Google Buzz service. Similarly, Windows has long sought to use its big chunk of the operating-system market to push users into other Microsoft products. “Just like Google Buzz, [Facebook is] trying to leverage one part of their platform to drive another piece of their platform,” said Soltani.

“I really do think the easiest thing for them to have done is just put a notice on everyone’s feed.”

Mobile apps might be a big part of the story here, particularly given that two of Facebook’s biggest competitors, Apple and Google, have their own popular email applications that come preinstalled on tens of millions of mobile phones, said Soltani. “If you supplant your email with your Facebook app, it’s going to push Google and Apple out of the way on the mobile environment,” he said. “So you’re not going to have to pop open Apple mail or Google Mail” to access your email. “That gives [Facebook] better data on the user” and more advertising opportunities.

“So it makes the site much more sticky, and makes people stay on Facebook instead of going on to other platforms.”

Facebook’s move also underscores the surprising resiliency of email. “There’s all this literature that instant messaging and text is replacing email, and people are going to this platform, and that’s the future,” Soltani said. “And we kind of believe that, but it’s not 100 percent. And I think Facebook is realizing that for over a decade now, people are claiming they have the killer app, the next email, and it hasn’t happened. So this is a way to subtly nudge users into their platform.” In other words, Facebook is saying: if email is going to persist, we want a more active role in it.

Facebook’s rationalization for the change doesn’t appear convincing. Of the company’s assertion that it changed users’ email addresses for the sake of “consistency,” Lin said, “I don’t even know what that means.” A tempting interpretation for the lack of clarity is that Facebook knows the majority of users aren’t going to consider severing their relationship with the service over something like this. Soltani recalled an interview he gave a month ago: “Facebook is essentially Brokeback Mountain. Everyone thinks ‘Why can’t I quit you?’”

Lin, for his part, said he was having a hard time feeling outraged about the email switch. Consumers should know better by now, he argued.

“There’s an old saying [about] the Internet that if the service you’re using is free, you’re not the consumer, you’re the product,” he said. “And I don’t know if the average person understands that. You are in no way obligated to use this free service. So if you use it, you must know that in some way you’re being sold.”