Quite a while ago, I ranted about Facebook, their email “validation”, and their rather eccentric take on quality assurance. Things have changed at Facebook — you can now sign up using a sub-addressed email account.
But there may have been more to it than improper validation. One of the many ways Facebook comes up with suggestions running along the lines of “so-and-so is now on facebook, do you know her? let’s connect!” is to entice you to give your password to third-party services (they call this “add friends from your address book”). So suppose you had
firstname.lastname@example.org in your Gmail address book at that time, and you let Facebook read this address book, then Facebook stores the
email@example.com address (possibly indefinately) as one of your “friend candidates”.
Some time later, Mary Jane registers a Facebook account, using her firstname.lastname@example.org email address – the one that’s also on record as one of your friend candidates. Ping! Facebook sends you a message, enticing you to connect1.
Of course, this all falls down when Mary registers using a sub-addressed address, e.g.,
email@example.com. She might want to do this to channel the flood of facebook-originating email into a separate folder.
firstname.lastname@example.org is probably not on file with you or anyone else, since if you want to send her an email, you’d send it to
email@example.com — so that’s what was in your Gmail address book.
Sub-addresses: Bad for business, unless…
That brings me to the following conspiracy theory: Initially, Facebook disallowed sub-addressed email addresses (under the guise of a “broken” validator?) because those interfere with their goal of engaging you with as many people as possible (via friend suggestions), so as to have your eyeballs on their site and in front of their advertisers until they bleed (the eyeballs, not the advertisers).
At a certain moment in the past 28 months, they fixed the improper ‘invalid email address’ designation of sub-addressed accounts. Good for facebookers, bad for business — unless they parse the email address and drop the part between the
+ and the
@. Thing is, sub-addressing is not a standard. On my mailserver, I can specify a character other than
+ to use as an extension designator. It’s up to the mailserver to do something useful or silly with the sub-addressing. There are no formal semantics. If there is a
+ in the user-part of an email address, that does not necessarily mean that it is sub-addressed.
My guess is that Facebook made their address matching fuzzy, to account for many possibilities. They’ll plunder your address book and will still figure out that you and Mary Jane are acquainted, no worries.
Well, I do worry.
On the web, your email address is a key to your identity. Your identity is something which many organizations (advertisers, some governments, …) very much like to link across natural domain boundaries. I don’t think that many organizations have updated their address matching algorithms with fuzzyness… yet. So at the moment, it’s still a good idea to sign up to sites and services using unique, subaddressed email accounts. But to be futureproof, you’ll need to defeat fuzzy matchers that take the many forms of sub-addressing into account. It’s probably best to just register a domain and have all email arriving at that domain be delivered to one account. That way, you can easily use any email address at that domain when signing up. If you don’t want to run your own mail server, the one that Google provides you with if you take Google Apps on your domain allows just that. But I’m not so sure that recommendation is solid advice, privacy-wise…
1)Possibly, and hopefully, they do some cross-checking first.
Tags: email, English, facebook, RFC5322 —