How Facebook M Will Hook Us On Shopping At Facebook

A new personal assistant called Facebook M allows you to buy things by chatting with a faceless assistant in Messenger.

In March, Facebook quietly revealed a major play. Their Messenger platform, with 700 million users, would be updated to allow you to buy things right in the chat window. Looking for a new pair of black pumps? Need to book a ticket to Hawaii? Just want some gift for your friend’s new baby? Messenger would have you covered in a user interface based upon casual texting.


Today, Facebook has shared how they’ll make that reality possible: Facebook M. Facebook M is a(nother) personal assistant–like Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana–that lives in a tab at the bottom of Messenger. You just tap on it to begin a text-based conversation with someone ready to work for you, for free.

From Wired‘s early report, M is designed brilliantly. Here’s why the few beta testers in the Bay area now may quickly find themselves hooked:

M Is Not A Man Or A Woman…
Cortana and Siri are, notably, female assistants. M is more like Google Now: A genderless construct.


…So M Actually Hides Human Help…
The benefit of no gender means that, while M can operate off artificial intelligence, it can also enlist human helpers–hired by Facebook–to seamlessly tap in when a request confounds the computer.

…And Makes A Virtual Assistant Feasible Today…
Let’s be honest–while Cortana and Siri are both clever, they’re 100% driven by AI, and AI isn’t yet good enough to handle all of the intricacies of our natural language requests. Meanwhile, some services like GoButler are sidestepping the AI problem by relying 100% on humans as free assistants in the hopes of inventing some wild profit model that doesn’t exist. Facebook is finding a happy medium, between human help and computer help.

…That Is Really Quite Powerful…
Facebook M won’t just find you plane tickets and baby shoes. It will wait on the line with Comcast for you. That sort of capability is created in part by a human backend, but it’s only made possible by a chat-based UI that can cut through what would need layers upon layers of user interface to communicate extremely specific requests.


…In Order To Hook Us On Them Tomorrow…
No doubt, M, powered by an unspecified number of human contractors, is a loss leader for Facebook today, but it’s a model–supported by the platform’s very design–that can allow M to transition to using more AI in the future without the user ever knowing. Meanwhile, since we’ve all had such a good experience from day one (one hopes) we become hooked by the time every big company has infallible artificial intelligence.

…As Long As We Continue Not To Really Care About Privacy.
Notably, Facebook M only mines information from the conversation you have in the chat window. It doesn’t look through who your friends are or what you’ve liked in the past on Facebook (though it may in the future). In other words, Facebook is holding back its most powerful tool–that Social Graph–in order to avoid the uncanny valley of AI, or what might happen when companies are suggesting ideas to us that are so tailored, or so good, that they actually creep us out a bit.



About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach


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