Facebook Messenger Wants to Rule Your Conversations

Last year Facebook made us install its messaging app. Now it’s recruiting developers to make sure we use it for just about everything

In April 2014, Facebook took a step that it knew would mightily piss off its users. If people wanted to communicate directly with a friend or family member, they could no longer do so within the mobile Facebook app. Those who tried to would haughtily be instructed to download a separate Facebook app, Messenger.

Resistance was futile. Every time you tried to send a message on Facebook with their Apple or Android phone, you got the equivalent of a punch in the mouth, demanding a switch to the messaging app. No matter that many people did not want to install another Facebook app, or felt that the company was already too much of a presence in their lives: in the course of using Facebook, it’s almost impossible to avoid sending a message to someone, or wanting to read a message someone sent to you. It was punch, punch, punch… until you’re pummeled into surrender. Facebook is reporting that, so far, 600 million users have raised the white flag and now use Messenger monthly.

Facebook’s VP of Messaging Products, David Marcus, admits that the transition at virtual gunpoint “was actually not a super popular move when it happened.” But today at Facebook’s F8 developer conference, the company made some announcements that revealed why it was so vital to make that move.

Here’s the big picture: Messenger is no longer just a part of Facebook, but a standalone platform to conduct a wide variety of instant communications, not only with friends, but with businesses you may deal with as well. It will compete with other messaging services such as Snapchat, Line and even Facebook’s own WhatsApp by offering a dizzying array of features, many of them fueled by the limitless imagination and self-interest of thousands of outside software developers. You will use Messenger to share ESPN clips and movie trailers. You will not only be able to make voice calls on Messenger (that happened months ago), but make payments to friends and retailers (that happened last week) and conduct ongoing dialogues with airlines, package services and maybe even the DMV.

Some of these new functions will replace activities formerly performed on your browser. Others allow you to do things you might have done in other apps — or other Messenger services. Perhaps most notably, Messenger is muscling in on email.

Facebook has always believed that the asynchronous nature of email was unsuited to the instant, always-on rhythms of the “social graph” that binds us to our connections, and has long tried to offer an escape hatch from the tyranny of the inbox. While Messenger isn’t explicitly trying to kill email, it is trying to wean you off email for many kinds of communication.

In fact, Facebook hopes that Messenger will become as integrated into your life as its main app is. Right now, in terms of time spent by users, the number one app by far is Facebook. Below are various browsers, email services, and apps. By sucking functionality away from those others, Facebook is aspiring to make Messenger a second home for mobile users, the go-to place for instant communications.

No wonder its ascension is the major announcement in today’s massive developer conference.

To help with the transformation of Messenger, Facebook made a marquee hire, the aforementioned Marcus, 41. He is a native Parisian who had previously been the president of PayPal, a wildly successful division of eBay in the process of spinning off into a public company. Now Marcus is just one of a bunch of executives answering to a 30-year-old tyro. (Technically, he reports both to CEO Zuckerberg and VP of Growth, Engagement and Mobile Adoption Javier Olivan.) He says he’s loving it. Instead of doing lots of things that are “not fun,” his focus is now “related to building things to solve real problems — it’s a lot of fun.”

He arrived last August after Facebook had already begun the forced march of its users to Messenger. Marcus, who had once gotten heat for haranguing his employees at PayPal for not using the company’s mobile payments app, thought it was an absolutely necessary move. “The team realized that it was very hard to actually compete effectively at real time mobile messaging if you are not in a dedicated app,” says Marcus. “So by actually removing the functionality [from the larger Facebook app], we solved all of these problems and provided people with a much better user experience than they had inside the main app. I’m glad the team took that step because now we have a product that we control entirely. We control every single pixel and every line of code of that experience.”

Before today the conventional wisdom was that Facebook needed that control mainly so it could update and revamp Messenger without waiting for an upgrade of the cumbersome main app. Also the separation would enable Messenger to run fast. But now it’s clear that separating the functionality of messaging from the mothership app makes it feasible to operate Messenger as a platform, allowing thousands of third parties to provide a limitless number of features and distractions. The more goodies that they attach to Messenger, the less you will use other services and email, and you will have fewer and fewer reasons to ever venture outside of Facebook’s world.

Facebook had already been developing its own little mini-apps within Messenger, festooning it with stickers, emoticons, voice clips and a selfie function. But Facebook wanted much more. “We decided the best way of addressing the need for people to express this wide range of emotion inside of a conversation was not to built these tools ourselves but to open up Messenger as a platform, to enable developers around the world to be super creative and come up with use cases,” says Marcus.

He demonstrates by going into the app and choosing someone to message. One touch offers an array of the first group of more than 40 apps that will be available on the launch of the platform. They are generally focused on the tiny-bite-size form of communication that is the prime means of interaction among young people and, increasingly, among everyone, except Leon Wieseltier. The app he chooses is GIPHY, which offers a choice of GIF clips to embed in a message. Another one allows you to take a picture of yourself and stretch a piece of it so you look even more bizarre than you are. There’s the ESPN app that lets you share the day’s highlights, or the FX app for clips from action movies. The Weather Channel app frees you from leaving Messenger to find out the forecast. Another app lets you find the perfect movie clip to send to a friend in a given situation. Down the road, L’Oreal is developing a Messenger app that lets teenage girls (and anyone else) give themselves a virtual makeup treatment and ask friends what they think. The wave of apps, says Marcus, will incorporate richer media like music and film; one imagines the likes of Spotify and Netflix getting involved.

“It starts to create a real platform out of Messenger’s conversational engine and enables apps to get massive distribution,” says Marcus.

While those apps position Messenger to better compete with others of its ilk, Facebook is breaking new ground in a service that will roll out soon that allows users to start Messenger threads with online retailers and service businesses for what Marcus calls “high signal events.” These are persistent conversations that track a transaction or reservation. Examples might include an online purchase, where a merchant would send a Messenger user an “interactive receipt.” (The first partners in the Businesses on Messenger service, which is in what Facebook calls a “preview” are the retailers Everlane and zulily.) In the case of an airline, after you book your ticket, you can initiate an interactive thread. It will show your itinerary, allow you to change your reservation, inform you when it’s time to go to the airport, notify you of gate changes and delays, and so on. Other use cases could include things like movie tickets, food delivery and restaurant reservations — pretty much everything in the “Uber of X” category. (Of course, the data generated on those transactions would be a valuable addition to the Everest of information Facebook already has on its users.)

In those cases, most if not all of the communicating is done between you and an automated system. Marcus calls this “a baby step towards a long journey of reinventing business communications.”

These cases are interesting because it’s one of many ways where Facebook is moving from a service centered around people you know to one that’s increasingly involved in stuff that might have nothing to do with your friends. “You’ve actually got two graphs inside of Facebook,” says Marcus. “You’ve got the people graph, but you also have the business graph, which is basically represented by Pages [the business equivalent of a profile page] and a bunch of other things.” Marcus contends that this will be a superior way of communicating with businesses, better than email or even an electronic assistant service such as Siri or Google Now.

Messenger could also be a way to conduct financial transactions, especially now that Facebook has instituted peer-to-peer payments within Messenger. If both parties have added debit cards or another financial component to their accounts, a person can send a friend a few bucks through the app. Unlike some other messaging services that are implementing this through third-party payment systems (Snapchat uses Square, for instance), Facebook has its own infrastructure, making it possible to imagine all sorts of transactions in the future. (As the former Paypal leader, Marcus offers his current employer considerable guidance on this, but he makes clear that payments were already planned when he arrived at Facebook.)

Marcus argues that people will eventually understand that the conversational paradigm offered by Messenger will prove the best way to do business in such cases. After all, he notes, literal conversation was the original platform for commerce. “If you had a rabbit that I wanted and I had a wolf skin that you wanted, we would talk about it,” he says. “But when you look at websites or different forms of commerce today, it’s not very conversational. It’s almost like the guy trying to sell you something is screaming at you, and you can’t reply, so you throw him money and he throws you the product.”

So when does Marcus think that the conversational paradigm will eclipse email? “It’s hard to say. People might want to have both for a while because they are used to having emails,” he says. “Over time, as we build capabilities and more interaction in those threads, the utility goes up, and the need for you to have something else goes down.”

And Facebook won’t even have to punch you in the mouth to make this happen.

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