“Build better communities” was one of the mantras featured on at least one of the screens on stage at this week’s F8 developer conference. Hosted by Facebook, the intent was to showcase the latest innovations within the company to get buy-in from developers on how it can further extend its quest to better connect us with each other. At one point, company CEO Mark Zuckerberg offered this battle cry: “Let’s go connect the world.” After the slew of announcements were made, it’s interesting to think how right he just might be.
In previous meetings, Zuckerberg said that the goal of Facebook was to help developers build, grow, and monetize. But to a certain degree, that’s limiting if you think of the social network as simply that and Messenger as just an ordinary messaging service, and so on. But it’s becoming apparent that Facebook is undergoing an evolution — one that will see its technology move beyond just being something you interact with on your browser to a force that we will all soon see affect our very real and public lives.
Note, this isn’t a doomsday warning post nor am I proselytizing that we boycott Facebook. Rather, it’s just my view of how “social” is continuously being redefined by Facebook (possibly in a good way). Let’s take a look at the announcements to better understand why I think this way:
Facebook Messaging Platform
As first reported by TechCrunch, perhaps the biggest news of the day was the fact that Facebook was going to extend its platform to include the messaging space. Called the Messenger Platform, developers will be able to integrate their applications into Facebook’s core messaging product. With 600 million monthly active users on it, Messenger ranks as one of the top in its class and now is the time for the company to accelerate its development so that it stands out against other competitors, namely WeChat and Line. The intent is to allow people to “express themselves in new ways and make their conversations better.”
Part of the platform includes the capability for people to build better relationships with their favorite businesses. Similar to Path Talk and Intercom, Facebook Messenger allows you to converse with participating businesses right from within the app. You would make your purchase from the company’s digital property, be it on Web or mobile device. Then you could opt to receive communication via Facebook Messenger. In doing so, you would automatically authenticate using (what else?) Facebook Login. The idea is that you would continue to form a relationship with that merchant, especially now that they can know more about you based on what you’ve publicly shared on the social network.
The idea of Messenger for Business is to streamline the experience so it looks like you’re having that in-store personal touch, especially when you’re buying something from an e-commerce property. Facebook’s head of messaging David Marcus explained that in the current paradigm, we’re inundated by emails, especially after we’ve registered on a site, made a purchase, when our order ships, etc. But with Messenger, it simplifies the whole process and conforms to the behavior that the user is comfortable with, not the system. You’ll receive in-app notifications when your purchase has been confirmed, when it ships, it’s delivered, and more. It’ll even let you communicate directly with the business — having some striking similarities to customer-to-business messaging offerings like Path Talk and Intercom.
Until now, Facebook has been centered around being simply online. But as Zuckerberg seeks to connect the next five billion users, it’s not about simply getting people to create profiles or Pages. Instead, Messenger takes a big leap forward by ushering in a new age where the concept of being “social” has been redefined to include a marriage of both online and offline. This is the reality that Facebook has created — Messenger has enabled us to bridge together our online and offline selves.
The choice of having Marcus lead the Messenger team is another sign of the encroachment of our digital lives with the offline. As the former president of PayPal, his experience managing payments, leading a mobile initiative, and helping products develop to scale, certainly would benefit Facebook’s pursuit of a new “social” pact with its users. In his departure from PayPal post, Marcus wrote:
At first, I didn’t know whether another big company gig was a good thing for me, but Mark’s enthusiasm, and the unparalleled reach and consumer engagement of the Facebook platform ultimately won me over. So… yes. I’m excited to go to Facebook to lead Messaging Products. And I’m looking forward to getting my hands dirty again attempting to build something new and meaningful at scale.
He echoed the same sentiment at F8 during one of the event’s keynotes where he spoke about the importance of Messenger’s platform, saying that “if you look at Messenger today, there are opportunities to build great opportunities on the platform, find which app is going to remain on top, be sustainable, and used over time versus being a fad. You want to have an app that’s there to stay and build creative tools that people will use repeatedly. Facebook has been a phenomenal platform for distribution and discovery and now we’re doing it again with Messenger.”
Case in point, look at the things that the Messenger team has done over the past several years: it enabled Voice-over IP (VoIP) calls to be made through its standalone application, competing with the likes of Skype, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, etc., and recently launched the ability to allow payments to be made, entering the same market as Venmo and Square.
However, the digital has invaded the real life, it’s not apparent how intrusive the Messenger platform could really get? What else could we see the chat service be integrated with? Certainly anything customer service related, but perhaps if someone wanted to integrate real-time chatting into their enterprise application, like a Yammer-like competitor? What about in the Internet of Things space?
Parse for IoT
Speaking about Parse, the Facebook-owned Platform as a Service (PaaS) offering had its own set of announcements during the first day of F8. Co-founder Ilya Sukhar took the stage to talk about the divisions focus: the connected object. It was only a matter of time before at least one Facebook property broke free from the Web coil to focus on new areas where developers can have an impact. It turns out that the Internet of Things space is right where Parse wants to be.
With Parse for IoT, developers will have access to an SDK that will enable it to better connect with hardware objects. This certainly closely aligns with the company’s mission of simplifying developer experiences on any platform. But this also shows that Facebook as a global company is looking to improve our connectivity with not only other people, but objects as well. Right now, Parse is working with Arduino, a favorite of the Maker movement, but eventually we could begin to see chip manufacturers adopting Parse’s SDK as a standard and then see more Facebook-infused devices being released into the wild.
Yes, Parse is certainly still an independently operated company and developers have the option when they use Parse to incorporate Facebook technology or not. However, let’s not kid ourselves as there may be at least a few scenarios where a developer may want to build a smart object leveraging Facebook data/APIs through Parse. Then we might get a refrigerator sending us a Facebook message when we’re out of milk, or perhaps hardware playing music voted on based on likes on a Page. As cliche as it sounds, the possibilities could be endless.
It’s about a “sense of presence”
One thing that seemed to echo throughout the keynotes during F8 was the notion of “sense of presence”. This is a concept by which people remain free to have shared experiences with their friends and connections. As Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer noted during his talk, Facebook is striving to accomplish three things that will facilitate us really connecting with one another:
- Create planetary connectivity: helping those that are unable to have Internet access connected via Internet.org
- Offer natural interfaces: amid the tidal wave of information, ensure that the information people receive is relevant to them.
- Build immersive experiences: give users a real sense of presence and enable them to have shareable moments with those that they care about.
These seem like logical goals for the largest social network in the world. And what’s interesting about this is that Schroepfer was mostly speaking about how Facebook as a technology can help keep people connected (read: “in touch with one another”) worldwide. This includes the use of Oculus VR, the virtual reality company that Facebook purchased a year ago for $2 billion. He explained that over the next decade, we will be able to fully realize this idea of “sense of presence”, perhaps fully powered by Facebook.
But in order to really get back to focusing on our relationships, whether in real life or virtually (whether due to distance or various other reasons), we need to pretty much have a zen-like mind, at least when it comes to the information that comes to us. We certainly spend a lot of time on Facebook properties, so what the company is doing is utilizing data algorithms and machine learning to help remove any digital obstacles that could hinder us from fostering those relationships.
The use of virtual reality may not help us with the face-to-face meetings that we all wish for, but it could come pretty darn close. Armed with a premiere virtual reality company, Facebook is exploring new ways to really get people to their destinations to have shared experiences with friends, colleagues, and loved ones. At F8, Zuckerberg remarked that soon spherical videos would be supported and there was even a “transportation” station at the conference. What this meant was that you could put on a VR headset and instantly be transported to a location (in this case, Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, CA) and have a 360-degree experience that probably looks like you’re actually there.
By now you might be wondering what this entire post is all about. In short, I’m theorizing that Facebook has moved beyond just being a Web app, grown tired of dominating mobile, and is now redefining what it means to be a “social” network. We’re in this next chapter of its evolution where it’s looking to combine its family of apps and services together to accomplish one thing: connect our worlds together — both the digital and the one in our reality.
Perhaps Schroepfer put it best at the end of his keynote: Facebook’s hope is that by marrying virtual reality technology with the most powerful social connection platform in the world, a true sense of presence will emerge. The output here is true moments will take place that you want to bring people towards.
That can’t be scary, can it?
Photo credit: Oculus transportation station at F8 via Mashable