Not many big apps have transformed as drastically as Messenger in recent years.
Originally just a component of Facebook, the messaging platform was spun out into an optional alternative standalone app in 2011, before users were forced to install it in 2016 to chat with their friends on the social network.
At first, it was just a straightforward messaging app, in the vein of WhatsApp or SMS. But it has since morphed into far more. It’s a platform for talking to businesses. A bot garden. A photo-taking and editing app, complete with augmented reality filters. A mobile game centre. An unashamed and much mocked Snapchat clone.
And it’s huge, with 1.2 billion monthly users worldwide.
These days, what is Messenger trying to be — and how does it reconcile its wildly disparate elements?
In late June, Business Insider attended a media roundtable with Facebook Messenger boss David Marcus in London, where the exec discussed the future of the app and how it’s tackling accusations of bloat, shrugged off concerns about copying Snapchat, and said that — despite the hype of previous years — “consumers don’t want bots.”
Snapchat ‘pioneered’ Stories
Load up Messenger in 2017, and you can’t help but be struck by the similarities with Snapchat. You can send expiring messages to your friends that auto-delete after being read. You can add photos to “Messenger Day,” a photo-story of your day shared with your contacts that apes Snapchat’s Story feature. The centre of the app is a camera that features drawing tools and Snapchat-like augmented reality filters.
“Booting into the camera in Messenger now brings up an interface which is ‘Snapchatesque’ in the same way that The Bootleg Beatles are heavily influenced by the works of Lennon and McCartney,” The Guardian snarked earlier this year.
Do the accusations that Messenger is blatantly copying Snapchat bother Marcus?
“I think what’s really interesting is looking at formats,” Facebook’s vice president of messaging products replied.
“Think about Facebook, when it was built, I think Facebook probably invented the feed-based format then a lot of other companies built feed-based products … so the Stories format is definitely one that has been pioneered by Snapchat, there’s no doubt about that, but people now tend to want to use vertical video, vertical photo more and more now that they have phones with powerful cameras and screens and the consumption of media that way is very popular, so it’s normal that the industry moves with these new formats as new tech has been created.”
It’s a similar argument to one previously made by Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom, which is also owned by Facebook and has also introduced a Story-like feature. Sure, Snapchat did it first, but that doesn’t mean it has a monopoly on the format.
Similarly, Marcus argues that the new focus on photos and filters is a natural evolution of faster phones with better cameras and more bandwidth. People just want to send photos and videos!
Marcus, who was previously president of PayPal, even made a veiled dig at Snapchat’s filter technology compared to Messenger’s: “There’s a big difference between capturing an image with masks or with all kind of effects and sharing it [like Snapchat does], and actually doing it in real time [like Messenger’s group video tool].”
‘Cathago delenda est’
Facebook has fought off major rivals before. In 2011, Google unveiled Google Plus, its own attempt at a social network. It sent Facebook into a full-on “lockdown,” with employees working long hours to improve their core product and fight it off.
Mark Zuckerberg even adopted a Roman slogan — “Carthago delenda est,” or “Carthage must be destroyed” — as a rallying cry to unite the company against this outside enemy, and posters bearing the slogan went up around the company’s campus. It was “total war,” one former employee said.
Did something similar happen to prompt the attack on Snapchat and the adoption of many of its features?
“We definitely had a conversation around the format, as in ‘okay, this is a thing and we need to make sure that we build the format that people like’,” Marcus said. “And that was the conversation, literally.”
And did the posters go back up? “Absolutely not,” the exec laughed.
Facebook is staying mum on the numbers of users of its Snapchat clone
Facebook has stuck the Stories format into every platform it can manage: As well as Messenger, it’s also in WhatsApp, Instagram, and the main Facebook app.
Instagram has boasted about how it now has 200 million active users of the feature — more than Snapchat, even. But the company has stayed quiet about its uptake elsewhere.
Anecdotally, I’ve almost never seen anyone create a story (or “Day”) on Messenger (or WhatsApp, or Faceb00k). But Marcus argues that “it’s a story of age group,” and that it’s “working quite well with teens actually.”
It is, he said, being adopted with younger users, even if older users don’t see any evidence of it.
However, anyone looking for harder statistics will have to keep waiting: The executive declined to provide any data about the number of people using Messenger Day.
Facebook Messenger has a bloat problem
Elements of Messenger appear lifted from Snapchat — but there’s more in the app than that. It is now positively overflowing with features, everything from end-to-end encrypted chats and multi-person video chats to single and multi-player games, stickers, GIFs, third-party apps and plugins, bots run by individuals and businesses, money-transfers (in the US), and more.
Many users aren’t fans. “The app really has become bloated with to much stuff going on,” wrote one Reddit user earlier this year. “Messenger was objectively the best messenger on the market- that was until they made pull down for camera rather than refresh, added stupid games which take up space, and the final straw being this stupid fucking snapchat s–t,” agreed another.
Facebook Messenger had a minor redesign in May, but Marcus conceded that there is more work to be done.
“I do think we built a lot of capabilities in a very short amount of time. We do need to rationalise and simplify and so we’ve started this process and last month revamped the lock and feel of Messenger, but that’s like the first of many steps to come,” the exec said.
“Individually, those experiences are sometimes used by hundreds of millions of people, but you don’t want an experience you don’t want in your way of messaging, so we’re doing a lot of work to do that … if by the end of the year Messenger doesn’t feel snappy and like super clean, please just hold me accountable to that.”
‘Consumers don’t want bots’
One key area for Messenger is bots. These are automated programs that interact with users through the Messenger interface — a way for businesses to talk to customers, offering potentially lucrative opportunities for Facebook. A news outlet’s bot might tell you the headlines, or you might chat to a florist’s bot in order to buy some flowers.
The feature was announced in a flurry of hype in April 2016 (“the bot era has officially begun,” The Verge proclaimed), but Marcus now has a curious perspective: “Consumers don’t want bots.”
He’s quick to make clear that he doesn’t think bots have been a failure (“it’s more successful than I hoped it’d be”). Instead, he means that consumers don’t care when they chat with a business if it’s a bot they’re talking to or a human, as long as they got what they want out of the interaction.
If the conversation with your bank’s customer support service was helpful, what does it matter who was on the other end of the thread?
“The thing is we started talking about bots then everyone wanted bots [for their companies] … you would push the bots narrative to consumers, but that didn’t work, because consumers don’t want bots. They don’t even know what it is. It’s a term that works really well for developers, because a bot means you’re going to automate a portion of the experience and for that it works great … but people ran off with it and marketing agencies ran off with that as well.”
He added: “The experience itself works, it’s just the term itself is not compelling with consumers.”
There are now 100,000 automated bots on Messenger, Marcus said, doing everything from providing customer support to selling products to people. But you’re still far, far more likely to talk to a real person than a bot on the platform: Of the 70 million active businesses on Facebook, 20 million of them respond to messages via Messenger on a monthly basis.
The app recently launched a Discover tab in Messenger to help people find bots and businesses, as it attempts to refine the experience and overcome the mistakes of the past — like bot failure rates of up to 70%.
Messenger is betting that these bots are the future — even if ordinary people don’t notice them.
Finally, here are some extra comments and nuggets of info from the roundtable that we found interesting:
- Facebook’s new “Discover” tab in Messenger, where users can find bots and businesses nearby, is currently only available in the US. But Marcus said that it would launch in the UK once it has sufficient “high quality” content to feature and produce a “great first impression” — “hopefully by the end of the year.”
- Similarly, Facebook plans to bring its peer-to-peer payments option to Britain “as soon as we get everything lined up” with partner financial institutions, which should be in the next 12 months or so.
- The Messenger team works — you guessed it! — predominantly via Messenger and Facebook’s enterprise platform Workplace. (But it hasn’t eliminated email entirely.)
- Messenger Lite, a light-weight version of Messenger that does away with all the bloat and is designed for users on low-end devices in emerging markets, is also slated to launch in the UK.
- Marcus is a fan of TV series “Silicon Valley”: “I find it extremely amusing and sometimes too close to reality.”