Why Facebook Messenger will fail as a 'platform'

Facebook introduced this week at its F8 developer conference a new API for one of its messaging apps. It's a terrible idea.

zuckerberg f8 messenger
Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Now we know why Facebook ripped Messenger out of the mobile version of the Facebook app last April: Messenger was destined to become a "platform" in its own right, complete with an API and developer program to help and encourage software companies to make Facebook Messenger-specific apps.

The way it works for users is that an interface to Messenger-specific apps appears right there in the Messenger mobile app. When an app is selected, the user is deep-linked to the phone's regular app store where the app can be downloaded.

Messaging as a platform is an old idea. Asia-dominant competitors to Facebook Messenger, such as Line and WeChat, have been offering apps, eCommerce, gaming, business apps and more.

Facebook Messenger as a 'platform'

Facebook demonstrated a horrid range of mostly banal and tasteless apps that had already been created for Messenger by hand-picked partners. The more-than-40 apps include a JibJab "funny button" integration, where someone's head is put on the body of a guitar player or a dancer. JibJab messages became stale more than a decade ago, when they were used to spam email inboxes (JibJab has been around for 16 years).

Facebook also demonstrated other "improvements" to Messenger, including stickers (where someone's face is replaced with a smiley face cartoon), animated GIFs and emoji.

facebook messenger apps f8 2015

In addition to decorating messages, Facebook also showed ESPN sports scores and Weather Channel updates from within Messenger.

Although tasteful and useful apps could be envisioned for Messenger, all those demonstrated simply added garbage and noise to a medium most people use for its simplicity and directness.

More to the point, every single thing demonstrated was old, stale functionality that has been available everywhere for many years. It's not hard to find weather information, for example. What problem is this solving?

Meanwhile, it's easy to see what problem it's creating: spam and noise.

Facebook promised this week that it would help developers monetize the stuff they built on Facebook platforms, and Messenger in particular is a major focus for selling stuff.

Earlier this month, Messenger users got the ability to send cash to each other (after adding MasterCard or Visa debit card account information). Sending money is as easy as tapping a dollar sign icon in the app.

This week, Facebook announced Messenger for Business, which leverages Messenger as a way for users to interact with businesses. The idea is that instead of calling to order something, get help or to complain, users can Message businesses using custom interfaces. Then these companies could send follow-up messages and who-knows-what after the initial permission has been granted. Messenger for Business will be promoted as a convenience for customers, but the main point is providing access to those customers by companies.

Users in recent years have gravitated away from email, and even Facebook for that matter, because of the junk. Apps like Facebook Messenger have served as refuges from the spam and noise of other media.

Now, Messenger as a platform threatens to undo all that, bringing the worst kind of annoyances to Messenger.

The ash heap of failed Facebook products

Facebook's desire to convert its 600 million users into paying customers for advertisers is only the latest attempt. All previous attempts failed. Here's my list of bold new Facebook products, designed to monetize users, replace Internet features or boost engagement:

  • Facebook Home, which was an attempt to put Facebook as a skin on top of Android.
  • Facebook Deals, a coupon service launched in 2011.
  • Facebook Gifts, a way for Facebook members to send actual, physical gifts to other members -- gifts like candy, cookies and stuffed animals.
  • Facebook Offers, basically coupons that could be redeemed when buying stuff online.
  • Facebook Credits, a virtual currency (each "Credit" was worth a dime) for buying virtual goods on FarmVille and other Facebook-embedded games.
  • Autofill with Facebook, which was meant to use Facebook credentials to buy things outside Facebook (It required users to add their credit card information into Facebook).
  • Facebook Inbox, which gave each Facebook users an @facebook.com email address.
  • Facebook FBML, Facebook's failed attempt to replace HTML with its own proprietary version.
  • Facebook Lite, which was a minimalist version of Facebook.
  • Facebook Poke, the company's first attempt at a Snapchat killer.
  • Facebook Slingshot, the company's second attempt at a Snapchat killer.
  • Facebook Questions, which is a kind of polling feature that was tried and then discontinued.
  • Facebook Places, a response to the then success of Foursquare, enabled users to check in to locations and share their locations on Facebook.
  • Frictionless sharing, an approach to sharing without user intervention promoted by CEO Mark Zuckerberg at F8 in 2011.
  • Facebook Beacon, an idea for Facebook to track what users bought online, then share that information with Facebook advertisers so they could be targeted better with Facebook ads.
  • Facebook Sponsored Stories, a way to convert "Likes" into testimonials, often without the permission of users. A $20 million lawsuit led to a settlement and the killing of Sponsored Stories.
  • The Facebook Phone, also called the HTC First, which flopped disastrously.

What all these initiatives have in common is that Facebook launched them to increase monetization or engagement in ways that benefited Facebook but which duplicated functionality that existed outside Facebook. Usually, these initiatives were specifically aimed at Facebook users who were doing things outside Facebook that the company wanted to bring into the social network.  For example, people were using Groupon or Snapchat, and Facebook wanted to offer an alternative inside Facebook.

That's what's happening again with Messenger as a platform. Facebook sees that people have been using JibJab, stickers, emojis and getting sports and weather outside Messenger, and Facebook wants users to do the same thing inside Messenger.

It won't work. The strategy itself is flawed. Beyond simple additions to their messages, such as photos and emojis, users don't want more "stuff" when messaging. And these functions already existed inside Messenger.

By bringing email and Facebook-like spam and clutter to Messenger, Facebook is simply monetizing Messenger at the expense of users. Because user participation is required, the whole idea will flop.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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