Why Did Facebook Hide a Message About My Lost Laptop?

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Dec. 9 2011 11:22 AM

Furious at Facebook Again!

When a man tried to return my lost laptop, Facebook hid his messages from me. How come?

Altered screencapture of Facebook.
Where is Facebook storing all those messages?

On Nov. 15 at approximately 11:45 p.m., I left my 1-month-old MacBook Air in the back of a New York City cab. Quickly realizing my error, I freaked out: Hands shaking, I dialed the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, reported the cab’s medallion number (I had a receipt) and jotted down the phone number of city precincts where my cargo could end up (if a good Samaritan turned it in). Then, I slumped against the side of a building and sobbed.

Of course, it was only a computer. But this superficial, expensive thing contained a completed story that I was supposed to send an editor at this magazine the following morning. And all of my notes for said story, which I had come to New York to write. No, I didn’t save my files to an external hard drive and no I did not have insurance on the computer. The next morning, I chugged coffee and rewrote the story. I tracked down the cab driver; he claimed he never found it. A week later, I reluctantly purchased a new laptop. And that was that.

Until today, when a colleague at Slate sent an email around about the messages Facebook hides in an obscure folder labeled “Other.” Haven’t heard of it? Click the Messages tab on the left side of your Facebook screen. “Other” will then appear beneath it. Click on Other and you will unearth months of messages you probably missed. (Blogger Erika Napoletano has great, annotated screengrabs to guide you through this process.) When I did just this, I inhaled sharply: A man had sent me four very important messages: two on Nov. 16, one on the 17th, and another on the 18th.

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“Please let me know if you lost something and identify what you lost,” said the first one. “Did you forget something?? Please identify what you lost,” pleaded the second. “Are you the one who lost something? Please respond and identify. I saw your name in the bag I found,” said the third message. Finally, he surrendered to specifics: “Dear Elizabeth, I found your laptop in a taxi. Please call me at xxxxxxxxx.”

I dialed the number immediately. A man picked up the phone. “I’m so sorry, I just saw your Facebook message!” I breathed. “Do you still have my laptop?” He said that he did have it, but that I should call him back in a couple of hours—he was in the middle of something important. I told him I’d call him back. Then I sent a series of all-caps emails to my colleagues about the fiasco (so professional), and, of course, updated my Facebook status to reflect my wrath (so meta).

How could Facebook do this? Why would they do this? Facebook messages are the social networking site’s version of emails (or at least they were before they introduced a version of Facebook email last November). Users can send them to friends by clicking the “message” icon at the top of a profile, or by clicking the “new message” button at the top of the Messages landing page. I asked a Facebook representative how, when, and why the messaging system was changed to include this sneaky Other tab.

Facebook, the representative told me, switched to the “Social Inbox” in November 2010 to sift out “meaningful” messages from less meaningful ones. She sent along this official explanation, which is also posted on the company’s blog:

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. If someone you know isn’t on Facebook, that person’s email will initially go into the Other folder. You can easily move that conversation into the Inbox, and all the future conversations with that friend will show up there.