Facebook’s ‘Other’ Folder

David Pogue’s recent post on Facebook’s ‘Other’ folder notes how the company is effectively hiding a significant number of legitimate messages from its users in an attempt to prevent spam and ‘unimportant’ messages from disturbing subscribers. What follows are a few examples of legitimate messages that subscribers missed because they were placed in this folder:

  • “Notification of the death of a friend was hidden in my Other box. I had been very hurt at not being told, and actually missed her funeral.”
  • “I just checked my ‘Other’ folder and found out that I won a free high-end kitchen faucet for a contest I entered last year. Rats.”
  • “Just looked at my ‘Other’ messages and found one about a job opening — in 2011. Think it’s been filled?”
  • “Whoa! There’s tons of important messages in here. Former students of mine were trying to reach out to me. I can’t believe Facebook doesn’t notify you in any way about these.”
  • “Unbelievable! My husband’s wallet was lost and presumed stolen — someone had found it a year ago and sent us a Facebook message, which was hidden until now! Thanks so much.”
  • “Just checked and found a message from someone telling me that they found my lost wallet…a year ago. They really need to redo some thinking on that ‘other’ folder.”

The intent of Facebook’s filtering is noble, insofar as it’s meant to cut down on the cruft and spam that people inevitably get in their email inboxes on a daily basis. I’m sure that the logic is as follows: if we can get people to like using Facebook messages more than email, then we can convince people to rely on our corporate system and wean people off of their traditional email services. Unfortunately, it looks like Facebook’s filtering system suffers from flaws, just as their competitors’ systems do. Worse, and unlike most of their competitors, Facebook subscribers can’t access this folder from their tablets or smartphones without visiting Facebook via the web interface. So, for people that predominantly engage with Facebook using the company’s mobile applications, this folder is effectively invisible. Messages simply vanish into a black hole. This is a very bad thing.

While Facebook’s system makes sense, I suspect that a great many people are as ignorant of the ‘Other’ folder’s existence as the people who wrote to Pogue. This information asymmetry between the developers and users suggests a problem in the UX or UI, insofar as it shouldn’t be a shock that this folder exists. Good UI and UX will prevent subscribers from getting ‘shocked’ about the existence of hidden messages, and will help ensure that the service remains ‘sticky’ for its user base.

Network effects can stymie subscriber churn but they can’t stop it entirely. If Facebook undermines professional or personal networks because of how it handles suspected ‘unimportant’ messages, then the network effect that Facebook currently enjoys could be weakened and expose a part of Facebook’s flank to companies that are more attuned to people’s communicative interests and desires. It will be curious to see how/whether Facebook incorporates the information that arose from Pogue’s columns, and if they actually modify users’ interfaces such that the ‘Other’ folder is more prominently displayed. At the very least, something should change in the mobile applications so users can at least theoretically access all of those ‘unimportant’ messages.