News

Why Facebook is making a big bet on Messenger

On the first day of Facebook’s developer conference this week, the company sketched out a vision of its message-centric future. One of the most striking things about this move, from a product perspective, is how it demotes the News Feed. While Mark Zuckerberg says that what he calls “the digital town square” will continue to be important, the product itself will attempt to draw you into virtual living rooms: private groups, events, and messages.

As I noted here yesterday, part of what is driving this change is the fact that users are already voting with their clicks and taps — spending less time in the News Feed than they are in more private spaces. Sharing photos and videos with friends still appears to be quite popular in Instagram and WhatsApp, which continue to build out new products to support the activity.

But say you’re one of the hundreds of millions of people who spends most of their time on Facebook proper. Where is the place where you’re supposed to see what your friends are doing and send them messages? That was the core feedback loop that got Facebook this year. In a world where people stop posting to the News Feed, where will they go?


We actually got a pretty good answer to that question during F8 this week, though it could be hard to discern against the din of other product announcements. But Facebook does have a plan for your real friends on Facebook — and the plan is unfolding in Messenger.

Ben Thompson had a characteristically sharp take on the news in his (subscriber-only) daily update today. He argues that Facebook was forced to take this strategy because Snapchat and Instagram eroded the popularity of the News Feed, and that last year’s move to promote “meaningful posts” at the expense of big publishers only made it worse.

That, then, led to this new strategy: let Facebook be Facebook — that is, most people’s portal to the Internet — with a focus on Groups to deepen Facebook’s network moat. Give up on trying to refashion a service known for a lack of privacy into a destination for friends and family. Meanwhile, rebuild Messenger into a social network in its own right, complete with its own feed (that second tab) and network (albeit a subset of your Facebook network). And oh-by-the-way, frame it as an embrace of privacy while changing nothing about the core Facebook experience and ad machine.

Messenger took up an outsized portion of yesterday’s keynote. (Or maybe not — it does have 1.3 billion users.) After a redesign last year succeeded in simplifying it from the overstuffed junk drawer it had become, Facebook said it would make Messenger the fastest-loading product of its kind, with an app size of less than 30 megabytes. The company announced plans to bring it to the desktop to promote heavier usage. And it also announced that second tab Thompson mentions — a place to see your friends’ ephemeral stories, their current statuses (represented by emoji), and perhaps eventually even stories they’ve added to the News Feed. (Facebook is already testing a merger of the two.)

Asha Sharma, who leads Messenger’s consumer products, had a starring role in yesterday’s keynote. On Wednesday, I sat down with her to talk more about Messenger’s future. One thing that struck me immediately is how she talks about Messenger as separate from Facebook in an important way — the latter is about communities now, she said, and Messenger is a social network in its own right.

”The opportunity that Messenger has is, we are building a social network around messaging — not the other way around,” she said. “In messaging, you communicate mostly with five friends. If you can build experiences on top those conversations that help you share more and spend real quality time together, that’s awesome.”

Today, Messenger has a central “people” tab that Sharma describes as a “social phone book.” It offers a row of Facebook stories, then a list of your active contacts. When the new Messenger arrives, that tab will be replaced by content shared by close friends. Sharma showed me a beta version of the app, where family members and colleagues she worked closely with had bubbled up to the top. “It’s a space where I can share into small groups and the people I care most about,” she said.

Of course, just because Facebook builds a spot for friends in Messenger doesn’t mean they’ll come. Analytics firms say that despite Messenger’s lead in audience size, Snapchat users open the app much more frequently and spend longer amounts of time there. Messenger’s new strategy relies heavily on the adoption of Facebook stories — and while the product has reached 500 million people a month globally, it continues to feel moribund among North American Facebook users in their 20s and 30s.

But as long as that particular cohort is still glued to Instagram, Facebook won’t suffer for it. And in the meantime, Messenger can serve as a laboratory for features that attempt to replicate the simple pleasures of the News Feed that have long since evaporated. Sharma tells me her team hasn’t cracked it yet — they’re still debating how that friends tab should look and feel. But if you’re curious which aspects of the old Facebook might survive in the new one, that’s where I’d look.

More from F8

F8 wrapped up today in San Jose. What happened? The day two keynote focused on building products more responsibly, and featured good talks from Margaret Stewart on ethical design and Lade Obamehinti on building artificial intelligence that is more inclusive. (Obamehinti shared a powerful story about how Portal’s “smart camera” didn’t recognize her at first, having been trained on a data set that used mostly white skin tones.)

Harry McCracken talked to Facebook’s chief technology officer, Mike Schroepfer, ahead of the keynote:

By sharing this data, Schroepfer hopes to belie impressions that Facebook isn’t taking the challenge of cleaning up its platform seriously enough. He is, however, quick to acknowledge that more work remains to be done and doesn’t criticize the skeptics. “The hardest thing for me personally is a sense that we don’t care,” he says. “It’s either we don’t care, or we’re not prioritizing it, or ‘It just doesn’t match my own personal experience day to day.’ But people get to feel what they feel, and until we get it right, they’re justified feeling whatever they want.”

Other stuff: You can now ask sensitive questions in health groups on Facebook anonymously. Amazon Prime Video is coming to Portal. Oculus is becoming a business play, and it’s courting developers. Facebook is open-sourcing more tools. Facebook threw a party for employees to celebrate the big redesign.

Democracy

Google employees protest retaliation with international sit-in

Sitting in is the new walking out:

Google employees are holding a sit-in at offices around the world to protest alleged retaliation against workers.

A Google employee told The Verge that hundreds were expected to be involved throughout the day, with sit-ins at offices scheduled for 11AM local time. A Google spokesperson said more than 200 employees participated in the New York sit-in, but that not all company offices participated. Employees in international offices, including London, also took part.

Twitter grilled on policy approach that reinforces misogyny

Twitter sent a representative to pay lip service to U.K. Parliament on Wednesday over harassment issues, Natasha Lomas reports:

Twitter has faced a barrage of awkward questions from the U.K. parliament over its ongoing failure to tackle violent abuse targeted at women.

Katy Minshall, the social media platform’s head of U.K. government public policy, admitted it needs to do more to safeguard women users — but claimed the company is “acutely aware” of the problems women experience on Twitter, saying it’s in the process of reviewing how it applies its policies to fix its long-running misogyny problem.

Here come the European Parliament tech hawks

Laurens Cerulus and Laura Kayali profile the members of Parliament who intend to take on Silicon Valley:

At the top of the list “to watch” during the next five years is Facebook’s antagonist in Germany: Justice Minister Katarina Barley.

Barley leads the list of her country’s Social Democratic Party and has bashedFacebook repeatedly on the campaign trail, calling on the company to do more to protect its users’ data and saying, “I am not on WhatsApp, nor do I want to be.”

Amazon’s facial-recognition AI is supercharging police in Oregon. But what if Rekognition gets it wrong?

Drew Harwell looks at how Amazon’s facial recognition technology has affected law enforcement in the Oregon county where it was first deployed:

Almost overnight, deputies saw their investigative powers supercharged, allowing them to scan for matches of a suspect’s face across more than 300,000 mug shots taken at the county jail since 2001. A grainy picture of someone’s face — captured by a security camera, a social-media account or a deputy’s smartphone — can quickly become a link to their identity, including their name, family and address. More than 1,000 facial-recognition searches were logged last year, said deputies, who sometimes used the results to find a suspect’s Facebook page, visit their home or make an arrest.

But Washington County also became ground zero for a high-stakes battle over the unregulated growth of policing by algorithm. Defense attorneys, artificial-intelligence researchers and civil rights experts argue that the technology could lead to the wrongful arrest of innocent people who bear only a resemblance to a video image. Rekognition’s accuracy is also hotly disputed, and some experts worry that a case of mistaken identity by armed deputies could have dangerous implications, threatening privacy and people’s lives.

Silicon Valley is awash in Chinese and Saudi cash — and no one is paying attention (except Donald Trump)

Teddy Schleifer examines Silicon Valley’s increasingly tense relationship with foreign capital:

For too long, most people in Silicon Valley have treated foreign cash with a collective shrug, seeing money as money and not truly considering the ethical and regulatory challenges of taking investment from certain foreign countries, Recode interviews with more than 50 venture capitalists, startups, lawyers, and others involved in cross-border investing reveal. Now Silicon Valley is scrambling to assess its own exposure in this new world order.

Money from two countries in particular has ignited a debate in Silicon Valley about the responsibilities of startups and their investors: China and Saudi Arabia.

Elsewhere

The productivity pit: how Slack is ruining work

Rani Molla explores how Slack fell short of its promise to make workers more productive:

On average, employees at large companies are each sending more than 200 Slack messages per week, according to Time Is Ltd., a productivity-analytics company that taps into workplace programs — including Slack, calendar apps, and the Office Suite — in order to give companies recommendations on how to be more productive. Power users sending out more than 1,000 messages per day are “not an exception.”

Keeping up with these conversations can seem like a full-time job. After a while, the software goes from helping you work to making it impossible to get work done.

“They’re Just Wrong”—Ex-Reddit CEO Ellen Pao Has Harsh Words on Big Tech’s Failure to Stop Internet Hate

Ellen Pao talks to Mother Jones about the power of de-platforming:

PAO: I don’t want to be negative about the way things are being run, but this is a different philosophy. For me, it’s about, “Let’s get a clean platform where everybody can have a conversation and actually have a real conversation and not just have as many people shout at each other as possible.” It’s been a long time since you could really go to Reddit and see that conversations were authentic.

If that’s what Twitter and Reddit are trying to have, then you’ve gotta get rid of people who are shouting people out of the public square, who are really bullying people. That’s not a conversation. You have to make sure everyone has the space to speak—and make sure that the speech isn’t causing damage—and that’s not happening right now.

Snap’s big plan to turn Snapchat into a gaming platform

Andrew Webster explores Snap’s big push into video games:

For Snap, there are clear benefits to having a hit game on the platform. It means users will spend more time in Snapchat and see more ads along the way. (Currently, there’s only one form of monetization on Snap Games: six-second-long commercials that players can view in exchange for in-game currency.) But don’t expect to see the next App Store-style gold rush for third-party developers. Snap Games isn’t an open-platform; instead, the company is partnering with a small number of developers to offer a more curated selection of games. At present, that includes everything from big companies like Zynga to smaller studios like Alphabear developer Spry Fox. From the sound of it, Snap is serving almost like a publisher, working with studios throughout the entire development process, from conception to launch.

Move Over, Kardashians. Pilots Are the Stars of Instagram

Everyone loves airline pilots on Instagram, Blake Montgomery reports:

Biedenkapp is part of a larger trend: airline pilots as Instagram sensations. Madeleine Schneider-Weiffenbach, who posts as @pilotmadeleine, boasts 1.1 million followers. The #pilot hashtag has 5.2 million tagged posts. Anas Amireh, who flies Airbus A350 planes out of London, has 390,000 as @pilotamireh followers and several dedicated fan pages. There’s enough pilot enthusiasm to sustain two huge accounts run by pilots named Maria — @mariathepilot, 462,000 followers, and @pilotmaria, 535,000.

Launches

Introducing auto-delete controls for your Location History and activity data

Google will soon let you delete your location history automatically, making it immeasurably easier for you to commit crimes.

Takes

Facebook pivots to what it wishes it was

Josh Constine shares his thoughts on F8:

Wired reported that Zuckerberg authored a strategy book given to all employees ahead of the IPO that noted “If we don’t create the thing that kills Facebook, someone else will.” But F8 offered a new interpretation. Maybe given the lack of direct competitors in its league, and the absence of a mass exodus over its constant privacy scandals, it was the outdated product itself that was killing Facebook. The permanent Facebook. The all-you-do-is-scroll Facebook. The bored-of-my-friends Facebook. Users were being neglected rather than pushed or stolen. By ignoring the past and emphasizing the products it aspires to have dominate tomorrow — Groups, Marketplace, Watch — Facebook can start to unchain itself from the toxic brand poisoning its potential.

Joe Biden’s Bad Announcement Tweet Was a Good Boomer Post

Max Read praises the humble authenticity of Joe Biden’s social-media brand:

Or did the team decide that Biden’s social-media brand is going to be “balloon background”? In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s Twitter presence was widely mocked (by natives, at any rate) for its attempts at mimicking the power-user form that AOC has managed to deploy so effectively on her own account. The core complaint was about authenticity: Who could believe that Clinton was tweeting Mean Girls GIFs to dunk on Donald Trump when, as a baby-boomer, she’d be much more likely to be posting the single word “banana,” presumably accidentally, on top of a gradient background? Biden may look very silly to Twitter sophisticates with his attempted solemnity interspersed with odd ellipses and double hyphens. But no one can say it’s not how a 76-year-old would post.

And finally …

How an Aquafresh Parody Tumblr Got Swept Up in a Hate-Speech Purge

In the tweeted words of the story’s author, Brian Feldman: “An Aquafresh brand-parody Tumblr that was posting Avengers spoilers was reportedly permabanned for hate speech, but it was actually because the account was tied to a Toy Story-themed community-led Nazi purge.”

“They banned it for a reasonable choice,” Josh admitted. He didn’t sound at all distraught about Tumblr snapping Aquafresh out of existence just like Thanos snapped the Avengers away. “Everything’s good,” he said. “It’s just time for me to move on from Tumblr, and go on Twitter instead.” It makes sense: You’re far less likely to get swept up in a hate-speech purge on Twitter.

Just another day on the internet, folks.

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and your ideas for the Messenger friends tab: casey@theverge.com.

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