Facebook's New Master Plan: Kill Other Apps

Apr 13, 2016
Originally published on April 14, 2016 4:08 pm

Mark Zuckerberg has laid out a 10-year master plan for Facebook. It's bold. It's savvy. And it glosses over a key detail: the dark side of making the world more connected.

At F8, the company mega-conference in San Francisco, the 31-year-old CEO delivered a keynote address in which, he said, over the next decade he plans to build a suite of products — each with a billion or more users — that together will serve one humble goal: "Give everyone in the world the power to share anything they want with anyone."

It's a mouthful. And they're not empty words.

The Anything App

Zuckerberg dropped an impressive stat: Between Messenger and WhatsApp (both owned by Facebook), people are sending about 60 billion messages a day. That's three times more than regular text ever got, he says.

Given these apps' popularity, it's time to do more than chat with friends. It's time to chat with businesses, too, via chatbots. Facebook unveiled a new Messenger Platform in which bots — automated programs — can talk you through any number of needs, all within Messenger's blue bubble.

You can search for answers to questions, make restaurant reservations, get a personalized news feed, order flowers even. Onstage, Zuckerberg cracked a joke: "I find it pretty ironic because now, to order from 1-800-FLOWERS, you never have to call 1-800-FLOWERS again."

If successful, Facebook could end up making many competitors — news apps, online shopping sites, music streaming services, even Google's search page — irrelevant. Or at least, less relevant. Much like Amazon became "The Everything Store," Facebook could become The Anything App.

Building Infrastructure

The company is thinking hard about the infrastructure it'll take to "give everyone the power to share anything with anyone."

Facebook is working on solar-powered planes that sprinkle the Internet from up high in the sky, and partnerships to subsidize data in some markets. (The company's Free Basics program came under strong criticism and was banned in India recently.)

Video streaming is key to the future. The company says people now watch 3.4 hours of video a day, on average. Engineers are working on Live Video, as well as how to stream more video using less data.

Zuckerberg described how virtual reality would let people hang out together, too. Last month the company started shipping Oculus Rift headsets. Later this year, he said, it will introduce touch controls. You'll be able to put your hands into VR — reach out and touch someone.

Public Safety Omitted

Zuckerberg's detailed keynote had one glaring omission: the public safety risks that are arising, the world over, as his company tries to connect people. "We stand for connecting every person, for a global community, for bringing people together," he said at the outset.

"It's naive," says Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Tufekci says Facebook has not paid nearly enough attention to the ugly things that happen when people come together. In Myanmar, the Buddhist majority has used Facebook to share calls for the killing of Muslim minorities. Militants use the site as a weapons bazaar, even after Facebook banned gun sales.

Facebook relies on users of its site to report violations. As purchases move from public feeds and groups to the privacy of Messenger, this model of online community policing — which already fails to catch wrongdoing — will not work, Tufekci says.

She doesn't fault the company for people's bad behavior when they are connected but rather Facebook's lack of attention to it.

"These are very basic human dynamics. This isn't Facebook's fault," she says. "I'm just a little surprised. This company is now more than a decade old. [We're] still hearing these really vague mushy values statements that don't take into account how Facebook actually operates as a dynamic, because it's a potent dynamic."

Facebook declined to comment on these public safety concerns.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Mark Zuckerberg has offered a glimpse at Facebook's master plan. He did this at F8, the company's conference in San Francisco. Here's NPR's Aarti Shahani.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: The 31-year-old CEO gave a rousing speech with a glaring omission. But before we get to that, the highlights.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MARK ZUCKERBERG: We stand for connecting every person.

SHAHANI: Mark Zuckerberg on stage in a T-shirt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ZUCKERBERG: For a global community, for bringing people together, for giving all people a voice, for free flow of ideas and culture across nations.

SHAHANI: And he followed that vision with a game plan. In Facebook's products Messenger and What'sApp, people are sending about 60 billion messages a day. That's three times more than regular text ever got. Zuckerberg laid out how, over the next decade, Facebook will build a suite of products, each with a projected billion or more users, that together serves one goal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ZUCKERBERG: Give everyone in the world the power to share anything they want with anyone.

SHAHANI: That's a mouthful, but they aren't empty words. For example, he unveiled a new Messenger platform so that now, inside the privacy of that blue dot, you can stream a personalized CNN feed or get automated chat bots to help you cater a dinner or order flowers. Zuckerberg cracked a joke about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ZUCKERBERG: I find it pretty ironic because now to order from 1-800-Flowers, you never have to call 1-800-Flowers again.

SHAHANI: If successful, Facebook could end up making many competitors, news apps, online shopping sites, music streaming services, even Google search page, irrelevant - or at least less relevant. Much like Amazon became the everything store, Facebook could become the anything app. Video is key.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ZUCKERBERG: We're also at the beginning of a golden age of online video.

SHAHANI: The company says people watch 3.4 hours of online video a day on average. Facebook recently opened up live video to everyone. Zuckerberg says he was watching a live video of a random mom skiing with her kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ZUCKERBERG: And it was just mesmerizing. I watched it for, like, a few minutes because I was just, I'm like, I really want to make sure these kids get down this hill.

SHAHANI: As the CEO painted this detailed picture of his company, poised to empower everyone to share anything with anyone, the glaring omission was public safety, the risks that are arising the world over when Facebook connects people.

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: Bringing people together sounds great. But when people come together, they don't just do good things.

SHAHANI: Zeynep Tufekci is a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She says Facebook has not paid nearly enough attention to the ugly things that happen when people come together. In Burma, the Buddhist majority has used Facebook to share calls for the killing of minority Muslims. Militants use the site as a weapons bazaar, even though Facebook has banned gun sales. Tufekci says Facebook isn't at fault for human dynamics, just for being naive.

TUFEKCI: I'm just a little surprised - you know, this company is now more than a decade old - that we're still hearing these really vague, mushy values statements that don't take into account how Facebook actually operates as a dynamic - because it's a potent dynamic.

SHAHANI: Facebook declines to comment on these public safety concerns. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.