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Facebook's mounting customer service crisis

It's unclear how many members still can't access their accounts after Facebook acknowledged a database issue, but one thing's for sure: the ones locked out are steaming mad.

There are some things that are nice to wake up to. The smell of bacon, for example. On Thursday morning, however, I woke up to something a little less pleasant: an in-box full of e-mails from Facebook members whose accounts are still inaccessible. Some were more or less on the verge of, well, panic.

Earlier this week, we wrote about Facebook's acknowledgment that some members could not access their accounts for several days, instead receiving a "down for maintenance" error. At the time, a Facebook representative explained that it was a "technical issue with one of our databases" and estimated that it would be resolved within 24 hours. It's unclear how many accounts have been affected.

But a resolution of the problem doesn't seem to have occurred, judging by the e-mails that were still showing up in my in-box well into Thursday morning. I sent another request to Facebook to find out more.

"We are continuing to work on the extended maintenance issue that is restricting some users from accessing their accounts," a statement e-mailed by a Facebook representative explained. "No accounts have been compromised during this process, and access will be restored as soon as possible. We apologize for any inconvenience."

Reader e-mails indicated quite a bit of frustration.

"I lost my job back in March and have been using this site as a networking tool," one reader's e-mail said. "It's frustrating that it's been down for so long."

Some were paranoid that their accounts had been deleted and all their contacts lost. And many of the e-mails cited unresponsiveness on Facebook's part despite multiple customer service complaints. Third-party customer service forum Get Satisfaction was filled with chatter about Facebook login and access problems, including at least one threat of a class-action lawsuit.

"Accounts are still down as of this Thursday morning," another e-mail read. "Facebook has been completely non responsive to its users. My account has been down with site maintenance issues since Saturday. I have sent over 20 requests to FB and joined help user groups looking for answers."

From yet another e-mail: "So far Facebook has been largely unresponsive to my emails, saying that this issue can't be reported as a security issue. It seems absurd to me that Facebook customers have no way to directly contact Facebook regarding problems."

With over 300 million active users around the world, we shouldn't expect Facebook to be able to respond to every inquiry it receives. And Facebook is a free product, so it arguably doesn't have a customer service obligation on par with your cable company or the Web site where you bought your last pair of shoes. But this is still a real problem for the social network, which has become so ingrained in culture and communication that for some people it's replaced the address book, the e-mail client, and the personal Web site. Many of the e-mails I received came from people who say that Facebook is their primary method of communication with far-flung family and friends. Others said it's crucial to how they do business.

Here's something else: Facebook doesn't offer a way for members to export their contact information into an address-book format, something that took center stage when blogger Robert Scoble had his Facebook account temporarily banned after testing a script that would export his contacts' information to Plaxo. Even now that Facebook has launched its Facebook Connect login product, there still is no easy way to access your contacts offline. The current account-access snafu indicates that this is a big void.

At the very least, Facebook could make some kind of mass message available explaining what exactly the problem is and reassuring people that inaccessible accounts have not been permanently deleted (assuming that's the case)--something easier to find and more detailed than the brief statement now posted to its company "fan page." On a more long-term level, this seems like a big red flag that Facebook needs to streamline its customer service operations somehow so that this sort of hysteria can be prevented.

A way to export basic contact information for offline access--phone numbers, e-mail addresses, instant-message screen names--wouldn't be bad either.

This post was updated at 10:41 a.m. PT with comment from Facebook.