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Facebook brings back the away message in a new mobile experiment

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Meet the new new News Feed

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, before Facebook created the world's first billion-person social network, many of us stayed in touch through instant messaging. Services like AIM and ICQ let us stay in touch not just through chat, but through away messages — tiny fragments letting friends know what you were up to while away from your keyboard. (The indispensable YourAwayMessage offers a representative sample.) Today, Facebook is bringing those fragments back with what it's calling the "sidebar status" — a kind of away message you can post in the sidebar of its mobile apps for iOS and Android.

The sidebar, which you bring up by swiping right in Facebook's flagship app, currently shows your most frequently messaged friends. Starting today, in a test that Facebook is running in Taiwan and Australia, users will see short status messages under their friends' names: "making blueberry scones at home," say, or "watching the game at home." (Twitter was once derided as a place where people only posted about what they had for breakfast; the away message was a place where you could share your breakfast without shame.)

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Messages can be accompanied with a little picture icon; Facebook has created dozens to choose from. Your messages show up only in the sidebar — you won't see them in the News Feed, or on your profile — and they expire in 12 hours, or whenever you post a new one. And they come with fairly robust privacy settings: by default, your friends can see them, but you can restrict it in much the same way you can limit access to your profile. Facebook does save your old status messages, but they're visible only to you.

A more intimate, ephemeral news feed

It's not quite right to call these "away" messages, of course, because these days we're never really "away" in the way we were in the era of desktop computing. But sidebar statuses have the same look and feel, and they're intended for the same audience that away messages were: your closest friends. Of course, there was a time when Facebook's main News Feed was for your close friends, too. But over the years, the feed has become more cluttered: with ads, news stories, videos, and distant acquaintances.

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Sidebar status messages appear most prominently for your "favorites," a dynamically generated list of friends based on who you message most on Facebook. (You can also pin your favorites to the top, and scroll down to see more distant friends' updates.) "People were having a difficult time staying in touch with their friends and seeing what they're doing on a daily basis," Sue Young, a Facebook product manager, said in an interview. The idea behind the sidebar status, she said, is that "small things would make people feel connected in a big way." She added: "Now when I visit the sidebar, I can get an instant pulse of what all my friends are doing."

Of course, the sidebar isn't exactly prime real estate in Facebook's mobile app. Many users may not even be aware that it exists. But if Facebook rolls out the sidebar status broadly — and Young says she hopes to — I wouldn't be surprised to see people using it more. It's a throwback idea that scratches an itch most of us still have — to tell our closest friends what we're up to, and to hear the same from them. Even if it's only what we had for breakfast.

Correction, 5:17 p.m. An earlier version of this story reported that status messages appeared only for close friends. The messages are visible to all friends by default, with your close friends' messages rising to the top.