Don’t shoot the Messenger? If it’s from Facebook I will

Facebook is the most ruthless of all at turning us into the product

Lots of tech companies have forced us to realise the truth of the maxim that “if you’re not paying for a product, you’re not the customer, you are the product”

Lots of tech companies have forced us to realise the truth of the maxim that “if you’re not paying for a product, you’re not the customer, you are the product”

Mon, Aug 18, 2014, 01:15

Last week, like millions of others, I had to install a smartphone app I really didn’t want to download. A friend had sent me a message about meeting for coffee, but instead of using iMessage on his iPhone, or sending an old-fashioned text message, he used Facebook. I got the message via the Facebook app on my iPhone, and tried to respond as I usually would, through that horribly convoluted floating bubble interface in the Facebook app that really should never have seen the light of a smartphone screen.

But instead I came upon a not insignificant obstacle: Facebook was insisting that I was obliged to download an entirely different app, Facebook Messenger.

The old, full-featured Facebook app would no longer allow me to carry out what is a pretty elemental aspect of Facebook, sending messages to your friends. Instead, now only Messenger can do that, and after I begrudgingly installed it, it became clear Messenger really, truly, desperately wanted to be my new favourite messaging app. Or, ideally, my only messaging app.

As it sprung open, it demanded my phone number, access to my contacts, my location and that I allow it to bombard me with notifications. The desperation on display, the yearning to become part of my daily smartphone usage, was unseemly.

Privacy settings

Bewildered, I tried to fend off this barrage of privacy-violating requests. But the next time I opened the app, I had to negotiate many of the same settings, put to me in subtly more insidious alerts, such as the ominous warning that “Your phone contacts will be continuously synced”. Just like Facebook before it, it seems the Messenger app is adept at sidestepping any privacy settings you might have stipulated.

Now granted, this was a minor inconvenience in the larger scheme of things, a metaphorical hangnail or papercut, but it does speak to a larger pattern of behaviour in the technology sphere that is cause for alarm.

Most obviously, this is a classic instance of privacy-destroying behaviour on the part of Facebook. Lots of tech companies have forced us to realise the truth of the maxim that “if you’re not paying for a product, you’re not the customer, you are the product”, but Facebook is the most ruthless of all at turning us into that product.

A post on the Huffington Post recently went viral alerting us all to just how invasive the Messenger app’s terms and conditions really are (it claimed the Android version of the Messenger app could control your camera and microphone, send SMS messages, that sort of thing). Facebook has been at pains to point out that those privileges are a result of the Google Play store terms, rather than their own, and lots of apps require similar access - but the post resonated and was shared because it reinforced the widespread sense that Facebook is the most shameless violator not just of privacy, but also of some vague sense of decency.*

Zuckerberg’s problems

Beyond the privacy implications, the whole forced Messenger migration illuminates the scale of Mark Zuckerberg’s mobile vision. By “unbundling” features that were pretty much essential to the main Facebook app’s usefulness, Zuckerberg hasn’t solved any of the problems faced by Facebook users, but rather he is trying to solve problems faced by Mark Zuckerberg.

Messaging is an area that has relatively low barriers to entry on modern smartphone platforms, where your address book rather than your Facebook friend list constitutes your social graph.

As Zuckerberg discovered when he splashed out $19 billion on Whatsapp, these new messaging services can scale to huge user bases with astonishing speed, and I’m guessing Zuckerberg doesn’t want to have to buy the next Whatsapp for billions of dollars every three years or so.

If he irritates his users in the short term but manages to improve Facebook’s strategic position in the long term, then it’s business as usual. That’s what he’s been doing since the beginning of Facebook, after all. It’s not like all those users have anywhere else to go, right?

The whole move reminds me of something called a “strategy tax” that I first read in a piece by the brilliant technology analyst Ben Thompson, a “strategy tax is anything that makes a product less likely to succeed, yet is included to further larger corporate goals”. Tellingly, the concept is often applied to Microsoft.

The deluge of one-star app reviews for Facebook Messenger on the Apple App Store suggests Zuckerberg has paid a fairly stiff strategy tax here. But the key measure is that Messenger is top of the app charts, so Zuckerberg has gone some way towards building a moat around messaging by forcing this move on Facebook users.

So, like a nation foisting private debt on to the public purse, Zuckerberg has in fact pushed the cost of that strategy tax on to the users. We are the ones who are faced with the privacy violations and the inconvenience of using two crappy apps where before we merely had to use one crappy app, all in order to buttress Facebook’s longterm monopoly in the social-network space. And like so many regressive taxes, it’s one most of us find ourselves powerless to avoid paying, except by leaving the country.

* This article was amended on August 21st to reflect Facebook’s response to the Huffington Post post

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