Why you shouldn’t develop Facebook chat bots (No it’s not what you think)

This isn’t another “apps vs bots”, or a speculation about the bright future of chat bots. Instead, this is a cautionary tale about putting all your eggs in the Facebook basket.

“I don’t invest in Facebook messenger chat bots”, Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked, exclaimed. He didn’t trust Facebook bots since many had lost money with Facebook apps. Running a business on Facebook is risky, he explained. I respect Nir, but I dismissed it as a “sour grapes” story.

Fast forward a month. I woke up early to a notification from one of our beta users. Our bot, Waylo had stopped responding. Checked the logs and noticed a “Auth token could not be verified” error. Puzzling. I have a routine of running tests everyday. Waylo passed all tests the night before.

How could the auth token suddenly change? I am the only one authorized to make changes and I did not sleepwalk or get drunk that night. I checked Facebook API status. It was healthy. But, when I attempted to log in to Facebook Developer console, the login failed: “Can’t be authenticated.”

Could I log into the personal Facebook account linked to the Facebook business page? Nope. Login was blocked. I had to upload an id or credit card to verify my identity and login!

Facebook account blocked

Okay, Facebook wants to verify my personal account. Why is access to send API linked to the Facebook page blocked? Even if Facebook wanted to verify identity of my personal page, why would they shut down the business page functionality? Turns out that exactly what Facebook does. You and your business are indistinguishable to them.

Does Facebook understand the concept of a corporation? If FBI started to question Zuckerberg on the fake-news fiasco, would FBI shut down Facebook while the investigation was underway?

Facebook’s explanation about privacy of your ID

I respect my privacy and had no intention of uploading my driver’s license or credit cards. I looked around in vain for solutions that do not compromise my privacy. Meanwhile, our inbox was filling up with messages from users asking why Waylo was not responding. I reluctantly caved in to Facebook’s demand. Fortunately, there seemed to be little verification and the profile, the Facebook page and bot were functioning once again.

Nevertheless, it got me thinking about Nir’s remark. Visionaries can assess the present and make a calculated guess about the future. And maybe Nir is right. Facebook probably doesn’t care about businesses on its platform.

The more I dug around, I realized that you should be very careful about Facebook Messenger being a part of your next big idea. Here are four reasons why:

  1. Facebook wants businesses to act and interact like people

That you need a personal profile to create a business page is testament to Facebook’s intention. And if that personal profile is blocked for any reason, your business will come to a standstill as in our case. It has happened to others too.

Another affected user

As far as I understand, for a C-Corp, the business should be considered as a completely separate entity. Not sure if Facebook has thought about it.

2. There is no privacy in Facebook Messenger bots

In line with (1), messages sent by users to Messenger bots are treated as messages sent to friends. They are always visible to anyone having admin access to the page. Facebook skirts the issue by requiring all bots to have a privacy policy. Pretty sure few chat bot users realize that no communication is anonymous or confidential on a Facebook bot. I haven’t seen any bot explicitly educating bot users about it either. Probably a lawsuit waiting to happen.

3. Facebook has a history of changing policies to hurt businesses

If you were affected by Parse.com shutdown, I don’t need to explain. Do I? Here’s another: a few years ago, Facebook changed algorithms to curtain reach of business pages. Only 2–6 out of every 100 of your page “fans” actually see your status update. You have to pay to boost the post and make sure it reaches everybody.

4. Businesses don’t own the data

Facebook is not explicit about what happens to the data as it passes through their servers. The data you gather based on interaction with your users may not be just your own.

Don’t get me wrong, messenger chat bots are a great way to test an idea quickly. However, when it starts to shape up as a business, have an escape route ready in case Facebook shuts down Messenger API like they shut Parse or if they block the personal account linked to the page as in my case.

Happy botting.