I hadn’t heard from my uncle for five years. Obviously, it’s fair to conclude we’ve never been that close. But when he did try and get in touch with me on Facebook, I nearly missed the message. Not because he had found the wrong person, but because Facebook automatically put his message contacting me into its ‘secret’ inbox. If I wasn’t in the habit of checking that — something I’m willing to bet most people don’t think about doing — it could have easily been ignored for months.
At first glance, Facebook seems to be going out of its way to make sure you are being bombarded with messages from every possible source. Your Timeline and Wall are covered with communication; there’s an omnipresent list of updates from your friends and a list of the ones who are online and waiting to chat.
In parallel, however, Facebook also tries to sort information into what it thinks you’ll find useful, based on two factors: how popular a given status update is, and how often you interact with people. You can see this in the view on your home page. This is sorted by default as ‘Top stories’, which is Facebook-speak for ‘stuff Facebook thinks is important, often entirely out of order’. You can click on the word ‘Sort’ and change to ‘Most Recent’ for a reverse chronological view. (Annoyingly, while Facebook apparently remembers everything you’ve ever done online since signing up, it refuses to remember your preference for this setting.)
The second inbox for Facebook is another manifestation of this somewhat irritating phenomenon. Messages from people you are friends with and interact with regularly will show up in your main inbox, which you can access by clicking on Messages in the left-hand column when you’re signed in. But sitting underneath Messages, and often ignored, is a small heading ‘Other’. In this inbox are the messages from pages you like on Facebook (no big deal, mostly) and from people trying to contact you but who aren’t yet your friends.
That second category can cause embarrassment and lost opportunities. My uncle’s message showed up in there because he hadn’t yet friended me on Facebook. And that’s fair enough: he really might not value my endless stream of Twitter-driven updates. But I easily could have missed it, because there’s nothing on Facebook encouraging you to check out that inbox. If someone messages you to say, “Are you Joan Smith from Nundle High?”, you might never see it. Not a problem if you don’t know where Nundle is, but a big potential issue if you do.
Unfortunately, Facebook doesn’t give you any options for changing the way the ‘Other’ inbox works. If you reply to a message that’s in there, it will automatically move into your main inbox, and any subsequent messages from that person will show up in your main inbox (and be indicated as a new interaction in the main status bar). But you can’t tell Facebook not to use the second inbox. It’s compulsory.
So how can you keep it under control? I do it by setting myself a calendar appointment once a week to check my second inbox. It doesn’t take long, and it ensures that nothing hangs around for too long. I don’t want to check it every day, but setting an appointment (with a reminder) seems a good balance. If you’re regularly using Facebook, which covers most people online these days, then you need to keep an eye on this one.