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Facebook’s privacy push puts Messenger in the spotlight—but pitfalls abound

Messaging apps are by nature places for more private interactions than open social networks. But will users trust Facebook to facilitate those experiences? And will Wall Street let it?

Facebook’s privacy push puts Messenger in the spotlight—but pitfalls abound
[Photo: courtesy of Facebook]

Facebook now says people need both public and private spaces in their digital lives—just like they do in their real lives. This is a stunning reversal from a company whose CEO said in 2010 that social norms had moved away from privacy as a priority.

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With Facebook’s vision now involving private spaces holding equal sway with public forums, the company’s Messenger product may take a couple of steps toward the limelight. The Messenger app, which was broken off from the main Facebook app in 2014, is by nature private, facilitating one-on-one conversations, group chats, and secure functions like payments.

The main Facebook app, by contrast, has been relentlessly public. For a long time, Facebook fought to keep as many user data points as possible public, in the interest of increasing engagement and targeting users with ads on and off the social network.

Zuckerberg recently said he believes messaging apps may represent the future of Facebook—that Messenger might even become the main Facebook experience. This could happen if lots of people decide they want to share content with only small groups of trusted friends or family and avoid exposing more data to Facebook’s advertising machine.

And yet there’s not yet much of a sign that Messenger is going to overtake the main Facebook apps anytime soon. According to AppAnnie, Messenger’s monthly active users grew just 15% in 2018, while Instagram app MAUs grew by 35%, WhatsApp MAUs grew by 30%, and Facebook app MAUs grew by 20%.

Of course that could change. Messenger is already huge, with 1.3 billion monthly average users. It also had more downloads in 2018 than the main Facebook app.

Facebook spent a substantial part of the day one keynote at its F8 developer conference talking about Messenger. The app will soon open faster and take up less space in memory, the company said. It will also interoperate with other messaging apps, like WhatsApp and Instagram.

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Facebook is creating new experiences—private ones—for Messenger. There’s a new feature that lets you view things, like photos and web snippets, with friends and family. Another new feature lets you discover, watch, and comment on videos together with friends. Still another lets you book appointments with businesses from within Messenger.

It’s good that Messenger is getting more useful features. Facebook has known for a long time that millions of users could migrate from social networks to highly functional messaging apps. That’s why it bought WhatsApp in 2014, in what remains its largest-ever acquisition by far. The wild success of China’s WeChat, which passed the billion-user mark in 2018, shows that messaging apps can widen out to accommodate lots of different kinds of functionality. For WeChat, that includes social networking, mobile payments, and other handy services like food delivery, ticket buying, and credit card payments.

Messenger already offers some of those capabilities and is likely to add more in the future. Facebook is inviting users to enter into types of experiences where the expectation of privacy and security is high, such as payments. But with Facebook’s poor privacy record, mainstream consumers may not feel good about entrusting the company with information, such as the necessary credentials to perform payment transactions on Messenger. For the same reason, I’m not sure people will want to participate in health groups and dating services on the Facebook app.

One thing we didn’t hear about at F8 is the potential impact of Facebook’s ambitious privacy changes on its current ad business. Today, the company is killing it in advertising by precisely matching advertisers with the most receptive audiences. And it does that with the social data it collects from Facebook users. What will happen to the collection of this data if Facebook users started spending much more time on Messenger? The makeup of Facebook’s social graph could change considerably, in a way that increases privacy but harms the ad model.

And Wall Street would react—probably negatively—to such a fundamental shift in Facebook’s business model. That didn’t happen today. Facebook’s stock dipped slightly after Zuckerberg’s keynote but gained back the little ground it lost during after-hours trading.

That makes me wonder: Does the Street believe Zuckerberg’s talk about reinventing the whole company around privacy? Zuckerberg talks a good game. But words are just words. Many of the things the company announced today won’t become real until later in the year or next year. Or never. For now, his talk about rebuilding the company’s infrastructure around privacy remains vague on details. When Facebook introduces ephemeral messaging across its platforms, I’ll start believing—even more so when it begins collecting fewer types of user data for ad targeting.

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If Facebook is really finding its privacy Jesus after all this time, I welcome it. But the cynical side of me doubts that Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg would do much to restrain the massive advertising machine they’ve built. At this point, Wall Street might not let them.

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