Why Did Facebook Hide a Message About My Lost Laptop?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
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.

“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.

Before the Social Inbox, all messages trickled into a user’s central inbox. But since the switch, messages don’t appear in the main inbox unless they’re from friends or friends-of-friends. Messages sent to mailing lists and broad distribution groups are also sifted out. Last November’s messaging revamp also introduced Facebook email and text messaging. Both must be activated before they work. If you activate Facebook email (at the top of your Messages landing page) or turn on text messaging, those messages will also filter into your main Social Inbox.

To be clear, I haven’t activated those new features: My problem was with only the most basic Facebook messages. And when I sent those angry emails to my colleagues, none of them knew about the Other tab either. Granted, a fair amount of what they discovered there was spam. Double X editor Kate Julian discovered this gem in her inbox from Scott, a “widow”: “hello kate, hello pretty,how re you ?my name is Scott,am sngle,am a widow...i saw your profile now then i decided to mail you...you look so good,i will love to know more about you ...do take care.”

But not all the missing messages were like this. Slate reporter Will Oremus uncovered two messages of note: one from a recruiter at another news organization asking if he was interested in a job opening there (“Good thing I wasn’t!” Will told me) and one from someone “whose father’s death I reported on a few years ago.” The second message began: “You’re the most disgusting man on this earth. Even three plus years later, hearing your name makes me want to throw up.”

Will wasn’t too upset to have missed these, but other Slate colleagues had missed messages they would actually have liked to receive. “I missed an invitation to be on Israeli TV, about 20 really nice notes about my Facebook birthdays piece, a whole bunch of Gabfest fan mail, and a howdy from some cousin I don’t know,” Slate Editor David Plotz told me. Deputy Editor Julia Turner also missed something she would have liked to get:

I missed a great story circulated by my first New York roommates about how our scuzzball landlord is now embroiled in a legal fracas for renting a 1.5 million Tribeca apartment to a guy who runs a basement sex loft out of it offering “flaming massages.” The neighbors are so mad they keep smearing dog feces on the door! I could have lived without this news, but I’m happier now that I have it.

So how can you make sure you find your lost laptop, appear on Israeli TV, and respond immediately to job offers? Unfortunately, the Facebook rep informed me, you can’t change your settings to get email notifications for your Other messages, the way you can for your main messages. Your best bet: Make checking the Other tab part of your daily Facebook routine.

I called my laptop guardian angel a few hours later. As it turns out, he is Ralph Nakash, one of the Israeli founders of Jordache Enterprises. (They do more than jeans, apparently.) It was his secretary who sent me those helpful Facebook messages. When I spoke to him, he asked me why it took me so long to reply. I explained Facebook’s crazy system for filing messages. He invited me to have coffee with him at New York’s Jordache offices next time I’m in town. I thanked him profusely. His secretary agreed to FedEx the laptop.

So do I curse Facebook because it hid Nakash’s messages, or praise it for allowing him to get in touch? I’m going to do both. Thanks, Facebook, for helping this nice man return my laptop. But please try to explain your services better. I suspect many people would be grateful.

Elizabeth Weingarten is the associate editor at New America and the associate director of its Global Gender Parity Initiative.