When I clicked on this story by my colleague Kevin Morris, about cops using Facebook to inform a mother of her son’s death, I thought I would read a tale of outrage, incompetent cops, and a wounded family.
The story details the utter stupidity of the police department that used Facebook to contact a mother to inform her that her son died. That's pretty much as bad as it gets in terms of colossal lack of tack and effort in a situation that calls for a lot of both. I don't buy for a second that they had no other way to get in touch with this woman.
So the cops were idiots. Clearly. But that's not all there was to the story. Kevin’s enlightening story had another piece of information that I found especially powerful myself. I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, because I'm one of the very early Facebook adopters. And while I don't pay attention to every single update, I know my way around. Or so I thought.
It turns out the reason that this kid's mother didn't see the email was that it was hidden—and I use that word intentionally—in a folder that very few of us know exists.
Try it yourself. Click on mail icon at the top of the page; you'll see on the left something called inbox. You know your inbox, of course. But right next to it, where you pretty much would never look because we are all trained to ignore extraneous stuff on the screen, is one little word: “Other.”
It’s easy to miss, because it's barely visible—faint and light gray in color. Guess what's in that “Other” box? Yup. Your mail. More of it. Turns out Facebook segregates Facebook mail that it obviously considers unimportant (e.g., mail from non-friends).
I discovered my Other box yesterday. To be honest, most of the mail came from men who told me how beautiful I was and how they wish to have an enduring long-term relationship with me. After getting over the momentary flutter of flattery, I realized it was obviously spam.
But also in that folder were a few messages that I really would've liked to receive when they were sent. There was one from a friend who was trying to reach out because another, mutual close friend's mother had died, and she wanted to let me know about the funeral. That’s pretty major. Because we were not "friends," it went to that folder. So did a note from a long lost relative who had written me about a year ago wondering why I was ignoring him.
I was pissed.
According to Kevin's story, if you're not friends with someone and you want them to get the email, you can pay $1 for the privilege.
I acknowledge that I use Facebook for free. It's a free service. So what do I expect? But I also use Gmail for free. In fact I use a lot of things for free. The exchange is fair: I consume ads and share countless volumes of personal information; in return, the people who run these companies get insanely rich (even if Facebook stock is not skyrocketing, its founder Mark Zuckerberg still has enough money to buy a $7 million house; host lavish political fundraisers; and pretty much buy all the Adidas sandals he wants).
You're nothing if you can't help people communicate.
Remember? People use Facebook to like, you know, talk to each other.
The thing I've always loved about Facebook (even when I've hated it) is that it allows two-way communication. It allows conversations—often meaningful conversations. If you start telling people that you are holding their messages for ransom, or worse, you simply don’t deliver their mail, you’ve lost your purpose.
People will lose trust. You’ll have to start wearing Adidas knock-offs.
Say what you will about the demise of the United States Postal Service, but when I mail a letter, I'm pretty sure they will do their damn best to get it to the recipient.
Is it wrong to expect the same from my electronic services? Let’s stick with the USPS comparison—what if the postal service said yeah, we’ll deliver your letter; but you have to pay $1 extra for your addressee to get the letter out of our mail office? God knows they could use the money.
It’s the money that’s really the problem. The greyed out “Other” folder could easily be labeled “Spam,” which is what most of it really is. We’re all conditioned at this point to check our spam folders every once in a while for mail that we might've missed. But charging money to make sure your message doesn’t go in Spam? If you’re really that hard up for cash, start charging for the service instead. I would consider paying for a service I use—and like—to communicate. And I bet I’m not alone.
I would just expect a lot more bang for my buck.
Janet Kornblum is a longtime Facebook user. If you need to reach her, you can find her there. But if you want to make sure she gets the message, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Image remix by fernando alfonso III,