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How Facebook may have hidden a really, really important message from you

Last year, Facebook rolled out what it called the “Social Inbox,” which is essentially two inboxes: Messages, which consists of important messages from friends, and “Other,” which contains less-important messages from maybe friends, but also people you haven’t friended on Facebook.

Who decides which messages are “important” and which end up in inbox limbo? Facebook. Or rather, some Facebook algorithm.

The upshot is that if you go to your Facebook profile and click on Messages, you’ll see another little folder appear that says Other (see photo at right). It probably has some relatively high number next to it, like 97 (mine, when I checked it today) — those are all the messages Facebook’s algorithm has deemed unimportant to you. They probably all are. The messages I found were mostly updates from Pages that I’ve Liked or spam, but in one case I found a message from someone who was trying to send me some photographs. It was from like four months ago.

It annoyed me, but I didn’t think it was that big a deal. However, it was a potentially huge deal to Elizabeth Weingarten of Slate. Elizabeth lost her laptop in New York City last month, freaked out trying to locate it and eventually broke down crying and bought a new one. (Not just any laptop, by the way — a brand-effing-new MacBook Air.) She later found multiple messages in her “Other” inbox from someone who had found her laptop and was trying to contact her.

Facebook has an explanation, of course, which Elizabeth included in her Slate post:

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 Social Inbox itself doesn’t really annoy me. I’m a little annoyed by the fact that there’s no way to turn it off. But what really annoys me is the pretentious nature with which Facebook ostensibly says You need this. If you keep reading about Social Inbox on Facebook’s blog, you’ll see this:

This kind of message control is pretty unprecedented and people have been wanting to do this with email (and phone calls) for a long time.

Really? Because I turned 21 in 2005 — I am a grown. up. — and I don’t need an algorithm to tell me how to filter my email. If I want an algorithm to help me filter my email, I use Gmail to set one up.

My point here is twofold:

  1. If you are a loyal Facebook user, you apparently need to make checking the “Other” folder a habit, lest you miss something important, like a job offer, a message from a friend or a message from someone trying to return your $1,200 laptop to you.
  2. If you need to contact me privately, don’t use Facebook. Send an email to paulbalcerak [at] gmail [dot] [com] and I will respond to you promptly.

By the way, Elizabeth writes that she was reunited with her MacBook Air, and adds this open message to Facebook:

Thanks, Facebook, for helping this nice man return my laptop. But please try to explain your services better. I suspect many people would be grateful.

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