The Best Reason Yet for Facebook To Stop Filtering Messages

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 21 2013 3:29 PM

The Best Reason Yet for Facebook To Stop Filtering Messages

FB-messages-001
How often do you check your "Other" inbox?

Screencapture from Facebook

When Anna Lamb-Creasy’s son Rickie went missing in January of this year, she called hospitals and jails to see if he had turned up.

One place she didn’t immediately search for answers? Facebook.

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Weeks later, according to reports, Lamb-Creasy and her daughter discovered enigmatic Facebook messages from a user named Misty Hancock. Facebook’s software siphoned her message into the Other folder—virtual dungeon of notes from users who are neither friends nor friends of friends (depending slightly on your personal settings). That was partly why it took Lamb-Creasy weeks to retrieve the note. 

In the messages, Misty directed Lamb-Creasy to call the police. But at first, Lamb-Creasy ignored the messages because the account seemed dubious; Misty’s picture was the Atlanta rapper T.I. Finally, Lamb-Creasy and her daughter dialed the number on Misty’s profile page, discovering that “Misty” was an undercover username associated with the Clayton County Police Department (south of Atlanta).

"They told me that they did the best that they can do [to reach me]” through other means, Lamb-Creasy recalled on WSB-TV. "But I'm not sure about that. (Because) if they can track a criminal down, they couldn't track me down? They could have done better."

But there are two parties here that could’ve done better: the police—and Facebook.  

Sure, the actions of the Clayton County Police Department are bafflingly unprofessional. But even if the police department had sent Lamb-Creasy messages from an official account—rather than from some porn star-esque pseudonym in a violation of Facebook policy —she still may have missed those messages without checking her “other” inbox.

Although Facebook rolled out the Other inbox back in 2010, many Facebook users still have no clue it exists. I, for one, learned about it in December of 2011 after I left my new MacBook Air in the back of a New York City cab. After the cab company told me it didn’t turn up at the end of the driver’s shift, I figured it was gone forever. I sobbed over my lost data—and then bought a new laptop.

A few weeks later, a colleague sent me a blog post about Facebook’s “other” box. (You can check it by hitting the messages icon at the top left of the Home page, and then clicking “Other,” which is next to “Inbox.”)  The man who found my computer had sent me a slew of Facebook messages, but they all flowed into the other mailbox. I’d never heard of it, and thus never checked its contents. I wrote about my experience on Slate, prompting hundreds of readers to comment that they, too, had no idea the folder existed. 

Late last year, Facebook tweaked the filters for the inbox and other folders, ostensibly in response to concerns that I, and other users like me, raised. “We’ve heard that messages people care about may not always be delivered or may go unseen in the Other folder,” a post from Facebook’s Newsroom says.  “… we’re replacing the ’Who can send me Facebook Messages’ setting with up-front filters that help to address this feedback.”

They introduced two new filters: Basic and Strict. Basic allows a user to see messages from friends, and friends of friends. Basic filtering is automatically turned on for people who already set their message privacy to “friends of friends” or “everyone.” Strict filtering means you’ll catch only messages from friends. It’s automatically turned on for people who had their privacy set to “friends.”

To access the filters, you can either select the lock icon on the top right of the screen and click “Who can contact me?” or navigate to the “Other” inbox (assuming you know it exists). Once you’ve clicked to “Other”, you can hit “edit preferences” underneath, and then you’ll see the two filtering options. 

But here’s the problem: There’s still no option for the user who doesn’t want a filter at all. Someone who would like to receive all messages in their regular inbox, regardless of who sends them, thank you very much.

I can’t see how the filters are useful for any user who isn’t a celebrity or prominent media figure. I consider myself to be an average Facebook user, and the last message I received in my Other folder was in August. Hardly a daily barrage of strange memos. Maybe I’m just extremely unpopular. But Facebook shouldn’t just make it an option to turn off filtering. The default message setting should be unfiltered.

Still, while Facebook claims the motivation for filters is altruistic (saving users from spam), another component of the company’s December announcement makes me wonder if there isn’t something a little impure behind the filter policy.

In December 2012, along with the new settings, Facebook began a little monetization experiment with messaging, as,  Will Oremus reported on Slate. As part of this, users can send a message to someone who is not a friend, or a friend of a friend, directly to the user’s inbox—for $1. (You can also shell out $100 to message Mark Zuckerberg directly.) So, perhaps it’s in Facebook’s best financial interest to keep the filters on—if this new message system proves to be a moneymaker.

In the end, the blame still falls on the Clayton County Police Department, not Facebook, for this communication snafu. Facebook declined to comment on the story. But perhaps it will still see the clear message underpinning this tragedy: Let us be our own filters first.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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

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