Facebook automatically updated the default email of most of its users today without warning. Even if you didn’t create a Facebook email account, a randomly assigned email address is now your new default email in their system.
So what gives? Facebook knows that no one likes it when the company alters user data. Facebook also knows that no one, and certainly no one’s friends, is likely to adopt a random new email for their personal use at this point. So why would they risk consumer ire by pushing what seems like an inconsequential email system?
Well, it turns out that this new email address could be of major consequence to Facebook’s future value even if you and your friends never actively use it for any interpersonal communication. Even if you never tell a soul that your new email is jimmy.joe.555@facebook, the truth is that you will give out this email over and over again: every time you use Facebook Connect to sign into a third party site.
The nagging fear bubbling deep in the gut of every Facebook exec is that, however unlikely it may seem at this point, the use of Facebook as the default social graph for most of the web might just be a temporary fad. Any day now, another social contender — maybe one of the usual suspects or maybe some startup lurking on the horizon — could waltz in and replace Facebook as the social dance partner of a thousand websites and apps. Facebook Connect may be ubiquitous today, but as long as the sites using it are able to collect your real email address from Facebook, they could ditch Facebook and easily retain you as a customer. Meanwhile, on Facebook’s end, the river of information about your web usage would begin to slow to a trickle. Game over for Facebook.
That’s where this little email gambit comes into play. For most Facebook users, it would never even come to mind to go into the settings panel and start cleaning up. So, as long as Facebook is able to quietly replace their default email, a funny little Facebook address is all that will be exchanged when these same users sign up for Instagram, Pinterest, or Words With Friends using their Facebook credentials. The email that no one wanted suddenly makes Facebook itself an indispensable link in the chain of contact.
While this seems sneaky and perhaps a bit dismissive of the accepted definitions of respect for the user, you could also see it as a positive; Third party sites will no longer get access to your private email address. This could mean less spam coming in to your primary inbox. That’s a good thing, right?
The gamble for Facebook is that if third parties are no longer able to communicate with their customers without Facebook getting in the way, they may be far more hesitant to offer Facebook Connect as a user credential system. The gamble for users is if they use Facebook to sign up for a bunch of other services, they might feel shackled to their Facebook account even if they fall in love with another social network.
Anyways, the net net is that this move brings into question, once again, the nature of Facebook as a product. The more it turns itself into a privately owned web utility, the more dangerous its ubiquity becomes. All of the moves Facebook is making are great utility moves, but let’s not forget that Facebook is now a publicly traded company with obligations not just to users, but also to shareholders. The further Facebook goes down the ubiquitous utility path, the more they will need to eventually be regulated.
Note: If you wish to change this setting back to your real email, just follow these instructions.