If you’re like most Facebook users, you probably don’t spend most of your time looking at your own profile, so it’s unlikely that you noticed a recent unannounced change that was made without your consent. The fact that all users have @facebook.com email addresses alone isn’t anything new, but it’s what Facebook has now chosen to do with those email addresses that has more than a few people upset.
The blogosphere has erupted in outrageous outrage this week over an easy to miss change that was first discovered Saturday by a British chap named Gerv who stumbled on it through dumb luck. This infrequent FB user just happened to look at his own profile and noticed that Facebook had removed his email address and replaced it with an @facebook.com email:
In other words, Facebook silently inserted themselves into the path of formerly-direct unencrypted communications from people who want to email me. In other contexts, this is known as a Man In The Middle (MITM) attack. What on earth do they think they are playing at?
Gerv also notes that you’d be wrong in assuming that messages sent to these Facebook email address at least get forwarded to your regular email address. So the obvious question is – Why did Facebook do this? Some are speculating that this is Facebook’s way to get you to use their email service, but that thing flopped when it launched nearly 2 years ago. Seems a unlikely they’d be dumb enough to think they could make a second go at it.
For its part, here’s what Facebook claims is the motivation for the change (via ProducerMatthew):
As we announced back in April, we’ve been updating addresses on Facebook to make them consistent across our site.
In addition to everyone receiving an address, we’re also rolling out a new setting that gives people the choice to decide which addresses they want to show on their timelines.
Ever since the launch of timeline, people have had the ability to control what posts they want to show or hide on their own timelines, and today we’re extending that to other information they post, starting with the Facebook address.
So, they did this for “consistency”, regardless of the fact that it means inaccurate contact information on hundreds of millions of accounts? C’mon, is anyone buying that?
Why Facebook Really Changed Your Email Address – Ad Revenue
Given that Facebook is after all a business, I think it’s safe to assume the move has something to do with revenue generation. But how would changing your contact information accomplish that? Facebook makes money through ad revenue, and the best way to increase that revenue is through more targeted ad serving which inevitably lead to high click-through rates. The more you use the service, the more information they have about you, allowing them to display ads that you’re more likely to click. It boils down to dat mining. Or, as Forbes’ Kashmir Hill puts it:
This is another in a long line of ‘nudges’ Facebook gives users to try to get them to spend more time on the site, and to make it users’ sole destination when they go online. Facebook would love to be the all-inclusive resort of the Web, replete with complementary digital daiquiris (that you’re forced to chug) upon entry. But this change is more a shove than a nudge, potentially circumventing emails you’d like to go elsewhere.
Kashmir doesn’t talk about the revenue angle, but that’s assumed. Facebook is a business and businesses are in business to make money, not just get you to use their free service. The free service is just bait. But Kashmir’s overarching point is correct – they want you logged in as much as possible. The more they know about you the better they’ll get at showing you ads that you’re likely to click.
So the people who thought this was about using Facebook email as a way to keep users were essentially right in that they understand the ends, just not the means. Yes, this is about keeping users logged in for data mining, but it would be foolish to think anyone is going to use Facebook for their email. So the benefit to Facebook still remained a bit unclear, until I did some testing with a dummy account I have here at the office and my personal account.
After making my personal account friends with our dummy account, so each could view the other’s profile, I copied the @facebook.com email addresses in to new Outlook messages and attempted to several send emails to each. Not only did I not get any notification (email or inside of FB), but I couldn’t find a record of those emails anywhere in either Facebook account. It seems like Facebook is not only expecting people to use their email service for “email”, but it appears as if they might have gotten rid of their email service entirely.
I went back to my browsers (I was logged in to one account on Chrome and the other on Firefox) and this time, instead of copying and pasting the @facebook.com email addresses, I just clicked them and rather than seeing a new, blank Outlook message open up, this is what happened:
If you aren’t already aware, that’s the message box for Facebook’s internal messaging system. Basically if you ever want to send someone a private message, and you don’t have their email address already, you can post them private messages through Facebook. That part isn’t new, because you’ve always been able to click on “message” near the top of any friend’s profile. The difference is that this same message window now pops up when you click on the @facebook.com email address that Facebook took it upon themselves to replace everyone’s actual email addresses with. Seems like a silly change to make still, right?
In the past, when I’ve received Facebook message, I would receive an email notification. That seems to be one of the big differences here. I first sent a few messages back and forth between the two accounts and because both were logged in, they came through like IMs, popping up on each screen. No surprise I wouldn’t receive email notifications for those, but when logged one account out and sent messages from the other, I still didn’t receive any email notifications. I did however see this familiar notification at the top of the screen after logging back in:
Gerv updated his initial post with a similar point:
Update: I now think this is not correct. The email instead goes to my Facebook inbox, and I don’t get a notification email to say it’s there. Which is, IMO, even worse – they don’t just pass it through their servers on the way to where it would have gone, they keep it, and fail to send me a copy!]
Essentially what Facebook has done is prevented you from being able to email friends outside of their system. Again, you’re not really using “Facebook mail” (if that even exists at this point?), but the end result is still the same – you’re being forced to stay logged in to communicate with friends when previously you’d have just emailed them using the address they listed in their profiles. Now, as we’ll discuss in a moment, it’s easy enough to change the email address you display in your profile back to your real email address, but it’s important to recognize what happened here – Facebook changed all of our profiles to for their own benefits. It’s one thing if they want to change they’re entire layout with the move to “Timeline”, but it’s rather unsettling to think that they can simply changed hundreds of millions of people’s contact information.
Before I provide instructions (with screenshots) on changing your email address back, I want to point out something else Facebook did here – linkable email addresses only when @facebook.com addresses are used. As I mentioned earlier, when you click the @facebook.com email address, the internal Facebook message window pops up (rather than new message window from your email client). But after changing my email address back to the original one and viewing my profile as the other user, I noticed that Facebook had made the address plain text, rather than a clickable link. Now, most people will just copy and paste, but is the lack of a linked real email address their petty little retribution for not playing by their rules? One click convenience is only for our real friends!
In the end, I think so few people will notice the change that these @facebook.com email addresses will remain in profiles and millions of messages will be sent using them, which is all Facebook really wants. Obviously they’d like for everyone to use FB messaging regularly, but there’s just no way that will ever happen. It’s also worth noting that Facebook has to be feeling the heat from Google+, the new-ish social media platform launched by the king of all data miners just 1 year ago. Google too recognizes the value in keeping users logged in as much as possible and has put increasing pressure on users to do so with the promise of improved search experiences, etc. The battle between these two rages on as they each encroach on the others turf, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Matt Cutts, Google’s head of web spam, took a little dig at FB the other day by highlighting this email issue:
— Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) June 25, 2012
How to change your Facebook Profile Email Address Back from an @Facebook.com address
To hide your @facebook.com email address and display your real address, you must first navigate to your own profile and click on the “About” link just below your profile photo:
Here is where you’ll first see your @facebook.com email address displayed:
Click “Edit” in the “Contact Info” section after you stop cursing:
Here you can easily edit which email addresses are “shown” and which are “hidden”. Ignore the fact that they say shown/hidden on “Timeline” here – they mean your profile. Once you’ve updated your settings, click save at the bottom and upon returning to your “About” page/profile, you’ll see that the “Contact Us” section has been updated to reflect your changes:
*UPDATE* For its part, Facebook is now saying they should have been clearer, but the key points in that Mashable piece remain:
A Facebook spokesperson said the company should have explained the email switch better, the Wall Street Journal reported. The spokesperson also said Facebook did not switch default email addresses to promote its own services, though that was what many users suspected.
“We want people to use whatever service is most effective for them,” she said.
Though Facebook has explained that you can undo their automated email address switch, replacing your @facebook.com address, the question remains as to whether most users will bother.
All of this is admittedly a bit of inside baseball, but it’s important to know how chaotic things can be when using even some of the most popular services on the web. It’s no wonder many business owners don’t know where to begin when it comes to using social media as part of their marketing strategy. If you find yourself in that situation let us know today and we’d be happy to discuss your options with you. We’ll also be posting a shorter version of this post that just focuses on changing your email address back and leaves out a lot of the analysis of what FB is up to. Of course if you’re in to that sort of thing, you can read more at LifeHacker, The Verge, ARS Technica, WSJ.