A Brief History of Facebook Messenger and How it Could Rule the Online World.
Facebook’s Messenger platform is the world’s fastest-growing instant messaging platform, totaling over 1 billion users, and was, at certain points throughout 2015 and 2016, the fastest-growing app in the US – period1. Messenger version 1 was released in August 2011, as part of the facebook app, with the simple purpose of linking desktop users to an sms-like experience. It included little more than photo and location sharing, and wasn’t a major part of the Facebook ecosystem. In late 2012, they introduced read-receipts and touted them as a revolution in messaging - it was just like talking face-to-face! Soon, though, Facebook recognized that their first separate app had potential – at the time, their flagship app was just beginning to leverage all of the data collection abilities being developed and an opportunity to extend that hand further into other apps was enticing. As a strategy began to develop around messenger, Facebook focused on testing various mobile integrations and streamlining their ecosystem. The end goal was to make Messenger more flexible - extend messaging beyond sms and supplant text-only messaging. To do so, Facebook entirely separated Messenger from “facebook chat;” forcing users to download the Messenger app separately if they wanted to talk to their friends.
This framework was effective, and by July 2016, Messenger had accured over 1 billion users. This was the culmination of years of smaller improvements2, a new look for the app, and a large expansion of technical capabilities for the platform, making it faster and more reliable than SMS or other messaging apps. Around the same time, Facebook started putting emphasis on the more unique features of messenger. Photo and video sharing was introduced in 2015, and Video Chat and VoIP calls were introduced. This was accompanied by a more subtle shift to making the app into a utility rather than just a, well, app. Messenger QR codes were introduced, group messaging was emphasized, and smaller “inline” chat functions were added, such as polls, money requests, and voice messages. In March of 2015, Messenger announced that businesses with a Facebook page would be able to directly interact with users via Messenger, tracking purchases and facilitating rudimentary automated interactivity3. To go with this, a Messenger API was announced, allowing third party developers to fold their apps directly into Messenger conversations. Shortly thereafter, Facebook began to encourage the integration of chat bots and AI applications within messenger, and this is where their goal becomes clear.
On the one hand, Messenger is arguably Facebook’s biggest single potential source of user data - people love talking, and they really like talking to friends. The intimate setting of a conversation means that people tend to be less filtered than they are on broader social media, addressing a broader range of topics more often. This means that facebook can essentially snoop on every part of our lives that we talk to others about and then put that data to use, either through their direct integrations or via advertising partners.
Let’s say, for example, that a couple prefers to communicate via messenger because of it’s advantages over SMS. They are looking into buying a lawnmower, and as soon as one pastes in a link to the Home Depot store page for a lawnmower, facebook knows that they are on the market for a lawnmower. Now, Facebook can place more effective ads in their news feed for lawnmowers from home depot, roughly comparable to the one that they were talking about. Maybe they’re also looking for other garden tools, even though they weren’t shopping for them directly – facebook’s algorithms place some ads for a set of shovels further down the newsfeed.
Later, one of them says “This laptop is getting old, we should get a new one.” With just that information, Facebook can decide to place ads for laptops across their sites and ad platforms. What’s more, they can place ads for laptops that they think are affordable for those people, based on their past purchase history, location, conversations, etc. It’s this combination of data and interest metrics that makes the Messenger platform so valuable – better, targeted ads means more clicks on the ads, which means companies will pay Facebook more to place ads on their sites.
The other approach to making Messenger a utility was born of a unlikely dilemma - too much data. Because it’s difficult to store, index, search, and analyze millions of messages 24/7 for ad placements and mentions, it’s easier to do the analysis in real time and to make recommendations inline with the actual messages. Integrations like the “M Assistant” already offers services when you talk about them, if enabled – these range from stickers to food reservations and beyond. Even the messenger games that you can play with your friends fit this schema - they keep you inside the app, using their system for all communications.
It’s clear that Facebook is investing so heavily in messenger because they know that an ecosystem this powerful is a valuable asset, and whether or not these ideas have already been implemented, the potential for data collection and monetization is there.
2: I’m not exactly doing the many iterations of Messenger justice here - there were a collasal number of additions and technical improvements to the app before it reached 1 billion users.