Facebook's Brilliant, Boring Master Plan

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Facebook's Brilliant, Boring Master Plan

Facebook Messenger for iOS 7 suggests ambitious things to come

T he new Facebook Messenger for iOS 7 announced itself on my phone with a grating, startlingly loud ping. Apparently during its background update, pushed just hours ago, Facebook saw fit to replace the boring-but-pleasant-enough clop of the old Messenger with something new, fresh, and annoying as all hell. I'll give them this: it was a heck of a way to let me know something'd changed.

For those of you with neither Facebook nor iPhones, know that Facebook Messenger has always seemed like a somewhat silly app. It's a client for Facebook Chat, which is a pleasant enough instant messaging service but which was also available in its entirety through Facebook's main app, with scarcely little different about it. In both, you reveal contacts by swiping to the right; in both, you can open up a list of recent chats and see if anyone has sent you anything new. The main Facebook app shows your active chats as little overlaying circles, which you can flick off the screen if you'd rather focus on your newsfeed or an event, but within the chats themselves, both apps seemed nearly identical. Facebook Messenger was the main Facebook's lesser in every way.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. One of the things I've appreciated about Facebook for many years is that it takes the occasional stab at getting out of your way, presenting something that's stripped-down and usable, and letting you connect to your friends without the overwhelming array of services that Facebook has come to provide. I was a fan of Facebook Lite, the minimalist version of Facebook's website that the company provided until it closed in April 2010. And when I noticed how often I was checking the primary Facebook app on my phone, I was glad that Facebook Messenger existed to give me access to my friends when I needed it and not much else. But that didn't stop it from feeling like a kind-of odd decision on Facebook's part. Facebook Lite surely existed as much for users on slower, older computers (and web browsers) as it did out of Facebook's benevolence for its users. Why, when Facebook had a perfectly functional app for their phone already, did they see fit to release a secondary app that replicated their already-there functionality?

This new version of Messenger does much to clarify why Facebook thought it was worth building. It also hints at what plan Facebook's got for itself and for its users, as it approaches its first decade of near-ubiquity within the social landscape.

Facebook isn't given a whole lot of credit for its innovative design work over the years. In its early days, Facebook grew its offerings fast and hard, and its design was keeping up to boot. When Facebook first opened its doors to high school students, I was doing some volunteer assistance work for a start-up called Zoints, which saw itself as a friendlier MySpace but with a one-click registration process for any of its partner web forums. (To its credit, Zoints was implementing this well before OpenID became as popular as it is; now Facebook offers a very similar service of its own.) I remember being flabbergasted by how sophisticated Facebook was to its competitors — not only compared to MySpace, but to Bebo and TagWorld and all the other social network competing in its space. Facebook understood early on that information mattered more to its users than anything, and that accessibility was quick to follow. To that extent, they debuted endless mini-improvements to their site's user experience, offering smoother and smoother methods of interaction while their competitors were still largely focused on flash and on glitz.

The user-to-user conversation model that you see, for instance, whenever you click on a tweet and see who it was written in response to and who's responded to it since, originated with Facebook's "see wall-to-wall" function, which now seems wholly intuitive but back then was a real leap in how users interacted with one another in public. On MySpace, you could read people's posts on your wall, but in order to write them back you would have to go to their profile and leave a comment completely in isolation. Following long conversations was all-but-impossible until Facebook's wall-to-wall setting, and from there it spread over to the other major social networking sites. Similarly, Facebook was the first major social network to implement AJAX dialogue pop-ups, allowing you to confirm or deny basic requests without leaving the page you were on. Even basic UI features like text fields that resize to fit whatever you're writing came from Facebook well before they could be found on any other big site. (I say this as a person whose job it was to monitor UX innovations in the hopes that Zoints might somehow be able to keep up. It couldn't.)

The Facebook Platform was another major UX leap at the time, since Facebook had previously disallowed its users any control over the look of their own profile page. 2007 saw Facebook switch to a modular box-driven layout that offered an easy way to re-position elements of your profile among a bigger and a smaller column, based on how much information you wanted any Facebook app to display at one time. It was an approach to customization that allowed Facebook to offer its users the flexibility that sites like MySpace claimed to provide, but with a stronger connection to the Facebook system and less overall clutter and ugliness. (Which isn't to say that apps weren't ugly as hell — see above.) After a period of relative clutter, Facebook began streamlining all its functionality, keeping as much functionality in as few places as it possibly could, until today Facebook has itself figured out so well that it's basically become boring. The exciting days where Facebook defined the game that it and its competitors were playing have long since passed. Now it seems content to lurk at the top, or at least very nearly to it.

(Image courtesy of abulaphiaa on Wordpress.)

The tech community never really warmed up to it. For a long time Facebook was aimed at youth markets rather than at the general public; even when it made its public debut, it was geared towards "intimate" socialization rather than public broadcasting. (It was years before Facebook even allowed its users to push messages publicly.) It came off as a hybrid of MySpace and an instant messenger, rather than anything truly new; Twitter was debuting new and exciting models of user interaction, and Facebook was generally content to follow suit. Its innovations with allowing apps to broadcast through a user's newsfeed felt like a bastardization of Paul Buchheit's FriendFeed, which it essentially was (Facebook bought FriendFeed in 2009). And Facebook's various UX innovations often seemed eclipsed by the wildly playful and show-y designs of its not-quite-rival Tumblr, which grew up in Facebook's shadow and has been slowly stealing its youth crown ever since. The early team of Jacob Bijani and Peter Vidani were working all sorts of flashy wonders at Tumblr; if Facebook influenced the structure of social networking sites more than perhaps any other, Tumblr may have been the greatest influence on the web's overall visual aesthetic. Though that's a contentious topic, to be sure.

But Facebook was never big on flashy design, even in its early days, and it's continued to push for function-over-form ever since. A piece I wrote in 2009, when Facebook was facing particular skepticism from technology critics, argued as much: Facebook's innovations have always been utilitarian in nature, and often fairly unexciting besides. Tumblr had its team of Vidani and Bijani; Twitter has employed big names in design like Doug Bowman and Loren Brichter; the most famous designer Facebook hired, perhaps, was Nick Felton, whose specialty is data visualization and representation. (The Felton annual reports feel like Facebook's wet dream of what it might one day learn about its users. They're also beautiful, so do give them a look if you're into that sort of thing.)

These days, it's popular to assume that Facebook is on its way out as a company, slowly losing relevance among the youth that once flocked to it; then again, it's been popular to assume that since literally the day Facebook debuted, and every step of its existence along the way. Facebook's definitely hit some rough spots as of late: privacy concerns are more prevalent than ever, and Facebook is certainly the posterboy for slow, insidious invasions of its users' privacy. Founder Mark Zuckerberg famously claimed that privacy is no longer a social norm in 2010, and the world has been somewhat loathe to agree with him. Perhaps the introduction of new mobile markets — and with them, apps such as SnapChat and Instagram — suggests that what was once fresh and useful is now passé. Maybe Facebook's purchase of Instagram for $1 billion (and its recent attempt to buy SnapChat for $3 billion) are the actions of a company that's struggling to remain relevant and knows it.

Yet Mark Zuckerberg has always claimed to have a grand vision for Facebook, a master plan for world revolution, and whether you think he's delusional or not the guy has always sounded awfully sincere about it. At the debut of Facebook Platform — at the time, an unheard-of innovation for a social network — he claimed that Facebook had only realized five percent of his dreams for it. His letter to his investors on the verge of Facebook's IPO in 2012 suggests that same ambition is still in place: it speaks passionately about the importance of one-to-one relationships, the social mission Facebook has for the world, and about his company's aim for its users: "We hope to strengthen how people relate to each other." Sure, it's customary of CEOs to bloviate and wax on about how their real ambition is to change the world, but Zuckerberg has always sounded unusually sincere about his intentions. His problem, if anything, has been that he totally misunderstands the world, not that he doesn't sincerely intend to change it — but it's hard to say for certain that he's misunderstood the world just yet, considering how much he's managed to change it already.

It's usually pretty hard to figure out just what Facebook's been up to lately, what its next plan for its users will be. Most of its innovations are gradual; most of its design changes have been fairly non-shocking over the past couple years. To all appearances it appears as if Facebook's been settling in, consolidating what it already has, rather than pushing into any intriguing new territories the way Twitter recently did with Vine. Facebook's update of its main app to iOS 7 was barely discernible: they replaced a blue gradient with a blue solid, and little else seemed to shift at all.

Which is why it's so fun that Facebook Messenger has undergone such a drastic shift with its new iteration.

The first thing you notice in it is the white. Gone is the top-blue branding that's defined Facebook since its earliest days; what's left is a title bar as bland as Apple's own iMessages app. In fact, Facebook's borrowed an awful lot from Apple's own design work: whereas other companies have largely tried to "iOS 7-ize" their pre-existing designs, Facebook Messenger adopts Apple's own design lingo with great gusto. The new Messenger icon seems like a perfect blend between the icon for iMessages and the one for Apple's new Remote.

The next thing that you notice is Messenger's offer to sync your contacts in your Address Book for you. It provides you with a screen-filling interrupt message when you first open the new app, and after that it gives you a large gawky message on your main Messenger screen.

Whereas Messenger's old chat bubble style was gradient-laden and heavy, it seems to have also copied iMessages in its message display style, as well as in its top-right "contact info" button that drops down a list of contact options:

(Whereas iMessages shows you timestamps whenever you swipe a conversation to the right, Messenger instead shows you information when you tap on a bubble, as shown above. It's a playful gesture that also reveals — if you have it enabled — geolocation data about the messages you're sending and receiving. Privacy enthusiasts beware!)

It seems, all in all, that at a time when Facebook's competitors are pushing for distinct identities of their own, Facebook is going somewhat in the opposite direction: it wants to be invisible, completely forgettable, yet so functional and competent that you'd never think to use anything else. Just as Facebook Home for Android offers you a complete replacement for your basic communicative tools — texting, calling, and so on — the new Facebook Messenger for iPhone wants to offer you a complete replacement for, well, iMessages. It says as much in the App Store:

Facebook isn't looking to offer you anything new. It wants to offer you something old, something you use anyway every day, and it intends to use its pervasive reach to give you easier access to your friends and acquaintances than your address book ever will — it doesn't even need your friends to offer up their numbers, not when you can text and call your friends directly from Facebook itself.

That's probably why the other prominent new feature of Facebook Messenger is a toggle to turn it off:

Slide that toggle to the side and Facebook logs you out of Chat. Your friends will no longer see you as available; they can write you and Facebook Messenger will log their message, but you won't receive a notification and you won't, to the best of my knowledge, receive phone calls if they attempt to contact you that way. It doesn't disconnect you from Facebook entirely, but it offers you enough of a distance between you and your friends that you can control, at least to a certain extent, how quickly they're able to reach you.

That's probably also why Facebook has added a prominent Mute button to its swipe-menu for messages, taking the place of the formerly-prominent Archive button:

You can now shut your friends off, at will, for either an hour or until the next morning, or turn them off permanently until you want to allow them to chat you again. This is the kind of feature that would be lovely to have for actual text messages, and for phone calls as well for that matter. It's subtler than blocking numbers, but still an effective way of keeping the noise in your life down when you need some quiet.

I don't know if Facebook messages will ever replace text messages for me — it certainly won't right now, because I have no reason to switch away from texting the people I already text. But I've noticed that I write new friends on Facebook much more frequently than I text them: with the exception of people I actually live with, most of my conversations with new friends happen through Facebook, because we don't have much of a reason to exchange phone numbers at all. I could see Facebook gradually creeping up on my social conversations, offering me slightly more fun and functional ways to interact with them, until finally I go full hog and drag iMessages down to the "Bllsht" folder I dump all of Apple's other arbitrary apps into. It's not a flashy move on Facebook's part. But it's a move that I, as a user, can appreciate, and that might keep me using Facebook even as I discover other new social networks to occupy my time with.

Facebook may have finally reached enough of a user mass that it no longer feels the need to distinguish itself as a brand; now, perhaps, it will shift towards more and more minimal displays of its users' activities, pushing for invisible functionality over everything else. Its attempted buy of SnapChat may have been an attempt to integrate one ultra-popular mode of communicating into its suite of chat tools, just as its purchase of Instagram may be its first foray into "specialty" newsfeeds that offer unique ways to share things with friends. In any event, Facebook Messenger feels like a push towards a new design mentality for Facebook, and a welcome one that strips away much of the cruft that's accumulated over the years. What Facebook offers on the web and through its apps may have seemed minimal and light back in the days of MySpace, when every web site was an enormous beast; now that sites are moving towards smaller, more individualized silos for their users, Facebook may strip itself down further, until what it offers looks less like an app and more like a universal platform for communication. At least, that's the message that its founder has been pushing since Facebook's inception, and its successive iterations make it seem like that truly is what Facebook is attempting to become: the invisible social layer, un-flashy and completely essential, so basic and so useful that you'd never imagine using something else.

In my 2009 essay Facebook as Non-Fad, I speculated that only three things might push people away from Facebook once they'd come to it in the first place: they'd have to either grow scared of it, get bored with it, or another model of social interaction would have to come along entirely. It's still possible that people will get frightened of Facebook's invasion of privacy, but I suspect, for better or for worse, that Mark Zuckerberg is right. People don't care enough about privacy, not in large enough numbers, that Facebook's supremacy will ever be threatened that way. I believe that other models of social interaction have come along, and that Twitter and Tumblr represent another kind of interacting with our peers entirely. Facebook, so far, doesn't seem interested in pursuing that social model; perhaps they believe that the two models of social interaction can coexist peacefully, or perhaps they've got some sort of rival product brewing in their labs. It seems like they're interested less with what's novel, at this point, and more with what's boring. They're not worried that people might lose interest in their variety of services; instead, they seem to be trying to push other boring methods of communication, such as texting and phone calls and email, out the window entirely. If so, they might have a massive advantage in this effort, thanks to how easily they let their users get in touch with one another.

Perhaps Facebook simply wants to become a no-nonsense address book, one which requires no updating and very little friction between social interactions. If so, then for all my general wariness of storing my data with a private company, or with one that uses me to draw advertisers my way, I have to admit that that ambition of theirs would be a welcome one for me. Facebook Messenger may have already been my most-used messaging application on my phone; this new redesign may cement its place as number one, both for me and for many other users. Sometimes boring is not a bad thing; sometimes boring things are the things done least well. If Facebook can improve upon my experience with the basic modes of communication that I use every day, then it's possible that I'll continue to be using Facebook for many more years to come.