I’m sure that’s not what Facebook’s engineers had in mind when they created Messages, but this will be one of the effects. Sending private messages, such as emails, will be more intuitive for seasoned email users, which means Facebook will make more sense to people who didn’t grow up using it and a better tool for family members of all generations to stay in touch.
Messages, which FB just unveiled in the US yesterday, is unlikely to replace our (parents’) regular email app or service, but it may become our children’s “email” service of choice. It does four main things: 1) gives you your own @facebook.com email address if you do the upgrade you’ll see offered under your profile photo, 2) collects all your FB communications (private messages in FB, chats, text messages, and now FB email) onto a single page, 3) which in turn shows you the history of all your conversations (I find this very helpful), and 4) possibly more than other email services, helps zoom in on communications with friends by sorting out spam and messages from people you don’t know (puts all that in an “Other” folder). You can also configure it to let your friends use FB Messages to send texts to your cellphone (FB prompts you through that, but you can uncheck publishing your mobile number in your FB profile). Having an @facebook.com email address is opt-in, not automatic, but FB makes it very easy, almost intuitive, to do so.
Safety features: For Facebook users under 18, the default setting for people who can contact them via FB “email” is Friends of Friends, as with other services on the site (so even when they see Everyone, only Friends of Friends can reach them). Facebook says that, if a teen does choose to have a public @facebook.com email address, “strangers won’t be able to message them,” because the site’s “taking extra steps to obfuscate vanity usernames for minors, and make it impossible for strangers to view their username, even in public forums like Pages they may have commented on.” So, just as with other email services, the teen will consciously have to give other people their email address in order for them to use it. However, an important caveat here: For many young Facebook users, Friends and Friends of Friends is often practically everybody. Just Friends lists are often pretty long and include people they don’t know. So have a conversation about this. Think carefully about opting into the feature that allows people to text to their phones directly using Facebook Messages. How accessible do they really want to be and to whom? This kind of critical thinking has never been more important, and they may not want to take the time to do it without your help.
Continuing with the privacy precautions Facebook’s taking: Even if someone could guess your child’s email address, the message will go to the “Other” folder if not from a Friend or Friend of Friend and your child does have the usual abuse reporting and user blocking features in place at FB, which you might want to go over together (especially with younger teens). Here’s the Washington Post’s coverage and Facebook’s own blog post about Messages.