Facebook Was Late to Mobile. Now, Mobile Is Its Future

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When Facebook filed to become a publicly traded company almost exactly seven years ago, its social network barely extended beyond the desktop. For most of 2012, mobile-only users made up a small fraction of all of the people on the network. Its mobile app didn’t display any ads. Facebook was frequently called out on its lagging mobile strategy, and its move away from HTML5 that year, along with its $1 billion buy of that nifty photo sharing app Instagram, was seen as part of an attempt to change that.

Now, 15 years after Facebook first launched, mobile apps might just be the most important elements of the social network’s future.

Mobile advertising not only makes up the overwhelming majority of Facebook’s ad revenue—around 93 percent of revenue in the fourth quarter of 2018, up from 89 percent a year earlier—but company executives are gesturing more and more towards Stories and messaging services as they chart Facebook’s future. Messenger, of course, works on desktops; as do Stories, those 24-hour snapshots of content that Facebook so blatantly ripped off of Snapchat. But the experiences of sharing and consuming these things are optimized for smartphones.

Facebook’s emphasis on mobile features also highlights some of the company’s greatest vulnerabilities as it looks ahead to the next several years: That Apple and Google, not Facebook, control the world’s largest mobile operating systems; that Facebook needs to make sure it keeps moving to wherever the kids are these days; and that it needs to prove private, encrypted services like WhatsApp, which are tougher to monetize, can still make money.

“In the beginning of Facebook there was this idea that everything was going to be public and permanent, and that became uncomfortable,” says Faris Yakob, cofounder of digital consultancy Genius Steals and author of Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising for a Digital World. “Facebook’s growth will require not only acquiring competition but adjusting to the times, and understanding that different generations of people have distinct media behaviors.”

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Last fall, on an earnings call with analysts, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said that “messaging and Stories make up the vast majority of growth in the sharing that we’re seeing,” adding that people share more than 1 billion stories each day around the globe. Instagram Stories alone have 500 million daily active users. People increasingly want to share privately, Zuckerberg acknowledged, and that includes “both smaller audiences with messaging and ephemerally with Stories.”

Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg continued to pound the Stories drum in last week’s fourth-quarter earnings call, announcing that 2 million advertisers are now using Stories, thanks in part to automatic ad placements. “If you think about our history, people made the shift to mobile before marketers did, and I think one of the successes we’ve had is we made it easier for advertisers to move into a mobile environment,” Sandberg told analysts.

To hear Facebook executives talk about it, you’d think they’d pioneered Stories, which now exist across Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, and the main Facebook app. That’s not the case. Facebook’s early attempts at ephemerality were largely ripoffs. Remember Poke, the standalone mobile app Facebook launched in 2012 that let you send time-expiring texts and photos? Disappearing texts and photos were Snapchat’s thing. When Facebook first started rolling out 24-hour Stories in Instagram in 2016, Snapchat had been offering the feature for three years already.

But as Kevin Systrom, then-CEO of Instagram told TechCrunch at the time, sometimes it doesn’t matter who did it first; it matters “how you take it to a network and put your own spin on it.” And Facebook has managed to do that, even if Stories on Instagram are still a much bigger deal than Stories on Facebook’s main app.

“The slightly rebellious silliness of the internet made it a fun place, and then it got really serious and grew up,” says Yakob. “Something like Stories has reminded us that people want to have fun and not think about what’s happening when trolls and bots are trying to harass us.”

In a statement to WIRED, a Facebook spokesperson said Stories are “one of the next big consumer behaviors—it’s mobile-first, camera-first, and our research shows people want to share the everyday. This is why we’re committed to Stories across all of our apps.”

App Factor

If 24-hour Stories are the slivers of social bait designed to keep people hooked on Facebook—especially as users begin to tire of news feed interactions and sour on the network’s data collection practices—then private or semi-private messaging apps might keep them locked in long after they’ve completely rejected Facebook as we now know it.

Facebook no longer breaks out Messenger and WhatsApp from its “main” Facebook numbers when reporting earnings, but Messenger and WhatsApp both have well over a billion monthly active users, and Facebook says that messaging is the part of its platform that’s growing the fastest. Zuckerberg has even said that “people are going to feel these [messaging] apps becoming the center of their social experience in more ways” this year. That’s not just chats among friends, either: Literally billions of messages are being sent between people and business on Facebook messaging apps each month.

According to a 2018 report from app insights company App Annie, WhatsApp also claims the most engagement of all the social and communications apps in the world, as measured by the average monthly sessions per user. And WhatsApp has surpassed both Facebook Messenger and the main Facebook app in terms of popularity.

This is due in large part to the network effect, says Danielle Levitas, who leads the research and analysis team at App Annie; more people keep joining because one of their friends, family members, acquaintances, or even a brand is already using a messaging app. And while Stories might drive overall engagement for Facebook, they’re “another format within a platform to appeal to some users, but they’re not unique or expanding the impact when it comes to the network effect,” Levitas says.

Face OS

As Facebook’s “other” apps have become central to the whole Facebook experience, it means those apps have co-opted the features of classic Facebook. Like “memories” of things you posted on the same day three years ago, which appear designed to simultaneously trigger a fuzzy feeling towards Facebook just when you’re thinking of deleting it, and also to convince you to re-share the same photo all over again. You can send your friend $5 for a coffee through most of Facebook’s apps now as well.

More importantly: There are ads. Lots of ads. Instagram has plenty of them; so does Messenger. And WhatsApp will have ads sometime in the near future. Meanwhile, Facebook’s main app will now send you notifications if a guy you went to college with and haven’t seen in years happens to post a video to his News Feed. It’s part of Facebook’s obvious variable-ratio reinforcement system, but it also reeks of something less jargony, like desperation.

But no matter! Ephemeral, semi-private, actionable exchanges are the future, and those are happening on mobile phones. Facebook is planning to unify the backend of its varying messaging services by 2020, something that Zuckerberg says is partly about “moving more to end-to-end encryption by default.” But it’s also about people exchanging money. If a person wants to buy something on Facebook’s Marketplace but they’re in a country that favors WhatsApp over Messenger and vice versa, the person should be able to pay with either. Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, has also suggested this is a part of Facebook’s “secret cryptocurrency play.

This might also signal Facebook’s true long-term goal: To become something more akin to an operating system, the way that WeChat has in China, Yakob points out. “I think increasingly people are trying to slim down their mobile experience, all those hook-you-in notifications,” he says. “But if you become the communications infrastructure you become vital, and then people can’t stop using you.”


Read More: Facebook at 15


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