We tend to regard Facebook as being a pretty public sociable networking site, and much of what we do there happens fairly openly either one another’s Timelines, or in groups or public pages.  However, Facebook also offers some pretty useful private messaging services.

Facebook messages is really a hybrid of a chat application and email service.  It was an email service first, and in fact you may not have realised it but when you registered with

Message for you!

Message for you!

you were assigned an email address which is your username@facebook.com (this is what displays as default on your profile, if you choose to display an email address, but you can change it).

Your messages window looks and feels a lot like any other inbox, and you can manage the messages in it in similar ways – reply, delete, ignore, etc as you choose.

But if both you and the person you are messaging with are online simultaneously and you have both enabled ‘chat’ at the bottom of the right of the Facebook homepage (underneath your list of buddies online), then your messages start behaving more like an instant messaging than email – in that each one pops up in your face across the bottom of the screen in real time, rather than awaiting your attention in the inbox.  In the history, the whole conversation is threaded together chronologically, whether it happened in chat or via time-delayed email – this is actually really helpful and I wish Gmail could manage the same thing!

The functionality in the proper mail window is slightly richer – in chat you can basically just chat there, whereas in your mailbox you can forward, delete, report and even add photos or attachments just like in any other email programme.  Due to the universal threading you can also jump from one to the other, so if you are chatting with someone you can switch to messages view if you suddenly want to send them something attached.

You can also opt to have Facebook messages sent to you as a text message, and send them from your phone’s text message centre.  In practice this is almost never used these days because most people who want it have Facebook on their phone in one way or another, and within Facebook itself the message is always free, unlike an SMS.

Facebook also offers video chat – if you are both online and have a mic and webcam installed, you and your friend can start a video chat right from the messaging window.  It works just like Skype- actually, underneath it IS Skype – it’s free, bandwidth-hungry/dependent, and works mostly OK, in most browsers.


Beware the ‘Others’!

Does your main email inbox have a spam trap or filter, to catch out messages you probably don’t want to see anyway?  Facebook does as well, by operating a second inbox for you known as ‘other messages’, which it hides away rather too efficiently.  To see it, you need to hover your cursor over the messages listing in the main left menu in your newsfeed, and wait a few seconds till the option appears.  Or, in your main messages window you will see it top left, greyed out, next to the total number of messages in your inbox.

What goes to the ‘Other’ box? Anything Facebook decides you might not want to see, and it is much less flexible on that than your mail client!  Essentially, messages from friends, and friends of friends, will tend to make your inbox.  You can only edit your message filtering between ‘Basic’ and ‘Strict’ – if you alter the defaults and opt for ‘Strict’, you will pretty much see messages from friends only (edit these settings in your messaging window, top left, just below the message counts for Inbox and Other)

Being Available

Facebook is of course quite enough of a timesuck even before you introduce the distraction of realtime chat.  You can always turn chat off if you need/want to be on Facebook, but prefer not to have messages pinging in your face.  Bearing in mind that if you are available for chat you are also available for video chat as well, you might want to control things a little.

Click the cog icon in the chat window, (bottom right) and enter advanced settings – here you can access options to ‘turn on chat for only some friends’, if you are feeling highly selective, or ‘turn on chat for all friends except…’ if you just want to avoid someone for a bit.  Bear in mind you may still get messages on any mobile app you have signed in on, and of course their messages will still reach you just enter your inbox instead of chat window.

A final little twist with messages that Facebook has introduced quite recently is the possibility to pay, in order to ensure your message reaches someone’s main inbox.  This feature is believed to still be in trial, and I have no idea who is using it or why – the cost seems to vary according to the famousness of the recipient, apparently to drop Salman Rushdie or Mark Zuckerberg a line could set you back over a tenner, so you might want to stick with messaging people you actually know – which, I always thought, was what Facebook was for anyway.

Would you pay to send someone a message on Facebook? Tweet me (for free) @casslar and let me know

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