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Behind Facebook's big bet on Messenger

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On the first day of Facebook's developer conference this week, the company sketched out a vision of 
 
May 1 · Issue #325 · View online
The Interface
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.)
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
Twitter grilled on policy approach that reinforces misogyny
Here come the European Parliament tech hawks
Amazon's facial-recognition AI is supercharging police in Oregon. But what if Rekognition gets it wrong?
Silicon Valley is awash in Chinese and Saudi cash — and no one is paying attention (except Donald Trump)
Elsewhere
The productivity pit: how Slack is ruining work
“They’re Just Wrong”—Ex-Reddit CEO Ellen Pao Has Harsh Words on Big Tech’s Failure to Stop Internet Hate
Snap’s big plan to turn Snapchat into a gaming platform
Move Over, Kardashians. Pilots Are the Stars of Instagram
Launches
Introducing auto-delete controls for your Location History and activity data
Takes
Facebook pivots to what it wishes it was
Joe Biden’s Bad Announcement Tweet Was a Good Boomer Post
And finally ...
How an Aquafresh Parody Tumblr Got Swept Up in a Hate-Speech Purge
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and your ideas for the Messenger friends tab: casey@theverge.com.
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