Back in November 2010, Facebook announced plans for a "social inbox" -- a space that would serve as a hub for all communications that people use online or via mobile phones, ranging from text messages and chat messages to e-mail messages, too.
Yesterday, Facebook began releasing Messages to more users and will continue to do so over the next few months. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he intends Messages to make communications more "seamless, informal, immediate, personal, simple, minimal and short."
Subscribing to Messages might not be for everyone -- after its announcement, Facebook users expressed skepticism over its promise to simplify communications and cited Facebook's flawed privacy track record. Experts, however, say that while the adoption of Facebook's take on unified communications will be slow, it is a growing trend.
Here's a detailed look at Messages and its features for when you gain access, and a few cautions before you sign up.
Facebook Messages: Before You Start
When you sign up for the new Facebook Messages, you're assigned a Facebook e-mail address. All messages sent to this address will appear in your Facebook Messages inbox. How you use this e-mail address and inbox is up to you -- for some, it may become your primary account where you receive retail offers, e-mails from friends and family, or even bank statements. But for others, it will probably become a convenient way of keeping all communications with Facebook friends -- whether it's a message, chat, e-mail or text message -- in one spot.
[Want more tips, tricks and details on Facebook privacy? Check out CIO.com's Facebook Bible.]
It's important to note that anyone who knows your @facebook.com address can send an e-mail to that account, whether or not they're a Facebook user. When someone sends you an e-mail from external systems, such as Gmail or Hotmail, they're formatted to look like your messages on Facebook, complete with your name and profile picture.
Also, consider this: Many Facebook users have probably checked out a handful of apps, whether they're games, photo-altering apps or business-focused apps. When you use these, you grant the applications permission to access certain information and message you. That means these applications will now be able to message you via your Facebook e-mail address.
Finally, note that once you set up a Facebook e-mail address, it will always be valid -- you cannot deactivate it. You can, however, change its privacy settings. The strictest setting allows only your Facebook friends to contact you via the e-mail address, all other e-mails will receive bounce-back replies.
Facebook Messages: Getting Started
When you gain access to Messages and log in to your Facebook account, you'll see a pop-up notification offering to upgrade you to it.
Clicking on "See What's New" will prompt you to activate your Messages e-mail address, which is your Facebook URL @facebook.com. If your Facebook URL is facebook.com/johndoe, your Facebook e-mail address will be email@example.com. After your e-mail address is activated, you'll be brought to the Messages home screen.
Set your privacy controls: Your new Facebook e-mail address is not viewed publicly on your Facebook profile. If you do wish to share your e-mail address with your Facebook friends, choose My Account > Settings > Change Email. Here, you can change your default e-mail address and add your Facebook e-mail address if you wish to make it public.
Do note, however, that since your e-mail address is the same as your publicly viewable Facebook URL, anyone who can see your username (such as in a search) will be able to figure out your Facebook e-mail address. You can change who can search for you on Facebook under your Privacy Settings.
Facebook Messages: Navigate the Interface
The Messages home screen is populated with conversation threads you've sent and received via the original Messages since you joined Facebook. Clicking on a friend's name will display the message history. Also from the homepage, you can change the status of a message to "read" or "unread" by clicking on the circle next to the message's date, or delete the message thread entirely by clicking the X.
Sending a new message: To create a new message, click the button at the top. To send this message to a Facebook friend, begin typing his or her name (it will autofill). To send a message externally, type in the e-mail address.
The message form also lets you attach a file, take a picture or video, or send the message via SMS. Once you send the message, it will be visible in a conversation thread under the recipient's name.
Adding and removing people from a conversation: If you start a conversation with more than one person, Facebook gives you the option of later adding people to the conversation. If you do this, the person you add to the conversation will be able to view the entire conversation thread. To add a person, click on the "Actions" drop-down menu and choosing "Add People."
If you have previously started a message thread that you want to add people to, note that you may not be able to do so until all of the people involved in the conversation have switched to the new Messages.
Similarly, if you were engaged in a conversation with multiple people and no longer wish to receive updates to the thread, you can choose "Leave Conversation" from the Actions drop-down menu.
When you sign up for the new Messages, Facebook gives you 10 invites that you can extend to your friends. Access these by scrolling to the bottom of your Messages homepage and choosing "Invite Friends."
Understanding the two inboxes: When you use Messages, you have two inboxes: the main one, called Messages, which stores the communications with your Facebook friends, and another called "Other," which collects messages deemed "less important," such as Facebook Groups you belong to and external e-mail addresses that you have not yet approved.
If you wish to have correspondences from contacts sent to your regular Messages inbox rather than Other, open the message and choose "Move to Messages" from the "Actions" drop-down menu. The next time you receive a message from this address, it will be sent to your main Messages inbox.
Set your privacy controls: If you want to modify who can send you Facebook messages and e-mail, visit "Privacy Settings," then "View Settings" and choose "Everyone," "Friends of Friends" or "Friends Only." All other messages will receive bounce-back replies. Changes to this setting may take up to 24 hours to take effect.
Facebook Messages: Turning On Text Messaging
When you sign up for a Facebook e-mail address, you're also prompted to turn on text messaging. You'll be asked for your country and your mobile carrier, then to text the letter "F" to 32665 (FBOOK). When you receive a confirmation code, enter it in the space provided. Be wary that the "Add this phone number to my profile" box is automatically checked, so be sure to uncheck it if you don't want that information public. But before you choose to add your mobile number, here are a few things to consider.
Once you turn on text messaging, the texts you exchange with friends are incorporated into your conversations along with your message and chat history. Friends can check the "Send to Phone" option when they send you messages. If they do, their message will be sent to your phone, and a copy will remain in your Messages inbox as part of the conversation. If you reply to the message via text, your response will also appear in your Messages inbox.
To send a new message to a friend via text, use the following format: enter 32665 as the mobile number, then "msg (person's name) (and your message text)."
Set your privacy controls: If you turn on text messaging, visit your settings to preview and change permissions. Do this by visiting Account Settings > Notifications. Here you can check and uncheck whether you receive texts when someone sends you a message, adds you as a friend, posts on your wall and more.
Kristin Burnham covers Consumer Technology, SaaS, Social Networking and Web 2.0 for CIO.com. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kmburnham. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Kristin at firstname.lastname@example.org.