By March 5, 2010

PSA: Use your instant messaging program with Facebook chat

Funny how Facebook has become the Switzerland of instant messaging among my friends. Some of us were on AIM, some were on Yahoo! Instant Messenger, and some were holdouts on ICQ. Before, in the ICQ/YIM/AIM days, the client and the protocol were the same thing. If you wanted to talk to someone on YIM, you had to use YIM. There was some “openness” to the various protocols (although a lot of it was reverse engineering in the beginning), and you saw clients like Pidgin able to talk on multiple networks.

Then Facebook came out and folks started spending a lot of time on there. Eventually Facebook implemented its own instant messaging chat.

The problem with Facebook’s Web-based chat is that it was that you had to be on Facebook all the time. Furthermore, it was always a little flaky. Sometimes messages would get stuck in “sending” mode, and sometimes friends would drop on and off without reason. I also think a fair number of chats were terminated because a user would navigate — accidentally or on purpose — away from Facebook.

So well over a year ago, Facebook announced it would be supporting the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol, or XMPP. Basically, XMPP is a common language that messaging programs can use to talk to each other. The aforementioned Pidgin supports it, as well as many other messaging clients such as iChat, Adium, and Miranda. Previously, there were plugins for Pidgin and other clients, but the performance was iffy and it wasn’t super easy to set up.

Progress seemed slow on Facebook’s end, until about a month ago. Facebook’s staff announced XMPP support, and the floodgates were open.

Sort of.

People were still having problems getting Facebook chat to work with their clients, so Facebook put up a nice how-to. It even provides details specific to your account once you’ve logged in.

Here’s what it looks like (minus my personal details):

It is easy to integrate Facebook with Pidgin now. You create a new account in Pidgin, enter the details provided by Facebook, and hit save. That’s it. You will still be signed into Facebook Chat when you visit the Facebook site.0

That means you will get duplicate messages — one on, one on your IM client. This isn’t a big deal to me, but some folks have problems with Facebook Chat eating up all of their CPU cycles when run via a browser. If you’re the type of person to leave a Facebook tab/window open all day, this might be a drawback.

The one thing I really dislike about the XMPP version is that you see all of your friends in one big group. I have my friends list carved up into pretty specific groups, and it’s nice to be able to chat with people I really want to, and “hide” from people I’d rather not chat with. You will lose this functionality with Pidgin.

Overall, I am very pleased that Facebook adopted the XMPP protocol and opened up their chat feature to other clients. I am not sure if the group / permissions thing is fixable, but that would be extra sweet. Give it a try, and let me know if you have problems setting it up.

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