Why Private Messages Suck

Every site boasting social features has, no doubt, some kind of custom user-to-user messaging system. Each one works differently but they all require that you be logged in to read the message. Don't worry about missing a message though, most services email you to tell you a message is waiting for you. But of course, most don't want to kill their page view stats by, gasp, sending the private message along with the email, making you click-through and login to their site. Some sites like Flickr and Twitter do include the message in the email, but you still have to use their site to reply.

It would be somewhat manageable if the reply-to field was that person's real email or the site was smart enough to relay replied emails to users in the form of private messages. Regardless, that's all semantics and this much effort on the user's part is too much. Last I checked, email is still alive and thriving, so why reinvent the wheel? Although this article is devoted to roasting private messages, I might as well mention that I think Robert is wrong regarding Twitter becoming the next email.

Private messages do have suitable uses.

Before I vex too many people, let me first state where I think the use of private messages is justified.

Forums and the like - Private messages first got their start in forum and message board software. In this case, private messages are a great solution in an environment where users don't personally know the other users and might not be comfortable with giving out their personal email address.

Otherwise

For everything else, I don't see the point of using private messages. For example, in social networks if someone is your friend/contact, and you already display your email address, why not just contact that person over email? Sites had to answer the call of the greenbacks and implement a communication system. It's all about business these days - bounce rates, page views and keeping the user on the site longer - but selling out isn't in the best interest of the user.

Points in the case against private messages:

  • By using email instead of private messages everything goes to one place, your email account. No need to login to 10 different websites to read something that could have arrived in your normal email inbox (which you check 144 times per day assuming you use Gmail, Google Notifier checks every 5 minutes and you're in front of your computer for 12 hours per day).
  • Emails are archiveable and may be searched through easily in the future.
  • As a dichotomy towards private messages, there are no limitations with email. For example, direct messages on Twitter are abso-[curse word of choice]-lutely useless. Think about this typical workflow: user receives Twitter direct message notification email, user must click the reply-to link and go to Twitter only to have 140 characters of space to reply.
  • It's easy to overlook a new private message, especially if the user has already become annoyed with incessant email notifications and disabled them.
  • Private messaging systems work in entirely different ways on different sites. That's another interface for the user to learn. That's one too many when email could have sufficed.

Exhibit A

Private Messages from various sitesHow private messages are implemented on various sites.

Overall

I know there are two sides to this issue but I have been against private messages for a long time. It was only until recently that my feelings against private messages were riled up again. I had logged into Pownce, which I admittedly don't use too much since more people follow me on Twitter, only to see that I missed a good 20 private notes. Multiply that by 10 or so similar sites and you can see my frustration. I often see private message notification emails, delete them and ignore the private message for a few days - I'm in email checking mode, not click-through, login and private message reply mode.

Do you have any points for or against the use of private messages that I missed? Where do you stand on this issue?

Mini-Contest

The first 20 people to write an articulate blog post reflecting their thoughts on this issue, send a trackback (if it doesn't come through, Akismet ate it so drop a comment as well) and email me their physical address will receive a PSTAM button, sticker and business card. If you don't have a blog, a comment will work too.
Paul StamatiouPaul Stamatiou

Paul Stamatiou is a designer, developer and photographer living in New York. He has been a product designer at Twitter since 2013. More »

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"Why Private Messages Suck" by @Stammy