Zuck's private messaging pivot 

March 15, 2019
A conversational newsletter by

In a landmark blog post last week, Mark Zuckerberg outlined a new, “privacy-focused” vision for Facebook.

The announcement signalled a fundamental shift in strategy for the company in the midst of growing public mistrust and plummeting usage of its core social network.

It was also a shot across the bow of Facebook’s Big Tech rivals in the ongoing battle over the future of business messaging.

Welcome to the living room 🛋

Zuckerberg observes in his post that while public social channels like Facebook offer users a digital “town square,” the rise of messaging signals that people increasingly prefer to “connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room.”

Lucky for Zucky, Facebook owns the two most popular messaging apps in the world — WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger — which, along with Instagram — collectively boast more than 2.6 billion users.

As the New York Times notes, Zuckerberg seems to be drawing inspiration from the world’s third most popular chat app. That would be WeChat, the Tencent-owned platform that dominates the digital landscape in China thanks to a built-in payment system that allows users to pay bills, play games, order food and do pretty much anything else you can think of without leaving the app.

Instead of selling ads — a business model that inevitably depends on collecting user data — WeChat makes most of its money by taking a cut of these transactions (not that its track record on data privacy is anything to admire).

If Facebook’s plan is to transition from an ad-based business to one built on conversational commerce, it has a long road ahead of it — though reports that the company is developing its own cryptocurrency suggest it could be shifting into gear.

But the short term strategy here may be a lot simpler.

All in the family 👨‍👧‍👦

Facebook’s announcement comes on the heels of widespread reports the company is working to merge the back-ends of WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram. This will allow users to message each other across the three apps and presumably make life easier for businesses once WhatsApp’s Business API becomes generally available and Instagram introduces its own enterprise solution. 🤞

In his post, Zuckerberg confirms the merger plans and lists “interoperability” as one of its new privacy-minded principles:
« People should be able to use any of our apps to reach their friends, and they should be able to communicate across networks easily and securely.

Of course, Facebook’s version of interoperability doesn’t extend much beyond its own walled garden. Android users can already send and receive old fashioned text messages via Facebook Messenger. But this doesn’t work on iOs devices where iMessage is king and Apple is making its own business messaging play with Business Chat.

Most importantly, the SMS protocol is not encrypted, as Zuckerberg acknowledges in his post. Neither is RCS — the new telecom standard backed by Google, which aims to update and replace SMS with a more modern messaging experience.

Tales from the encrypt 💀

Zuckerberg emphasized that Facebook’s new messaging-first strategy will be based on "the way we've developed WhatsApp," with end-to-end encryption at its core.

While critics have pointed out that encryption and privacy are not the same thing, WhatsApp is currently the most secure messaging channel on the planet as far as businesses are concerned.

When WhatsApp's Business API became available to select brands last year, a key caveat was that businesses had to store customer conversations on their own servers so that not even Facebook could access the data.

This was a significant technical hurdle that underscored A) how badly brands want in on this channel and B) that Facebook was serious about bringing end-to-end encryption to business messaging.

The question now is whether Facebook’s mega-messaging ecosystem can really be private, secure and interoperable, and whether brands and users will demand anything less.

The Last Telegram

You’ve probably heard of Telegram, the encrypted messaging app popular with Israeli potheads, feared by the Ayatollah and that reportedly gained three million users in the wake of this week’s Facebook outage (the perils of interoperability?).

But this story isn’t about that telegram. It’s about the kind your grandparents used to send, and which could take weeks to receive. In one Michigan man’s case, it took 50 years.

Robert Fink recently received a congratulatory Western Union telegram sent in 1969 by now-deceased family friends, the AP reports. The message was delivered a day too late and failed to reach him — until a good Samaritan found it buried in a filing cabinet and decided to track down the college professor.

As you’d expect, receiving the long-lost letter has put Fink in a reflective mood:
« “The theme for me has been that the long arm of the past is reaching out and grabbing me, and I should take it seriously.”

😢 Best wishes for a relaxing and reflective weekend. You can send me your feedback, questions and nostalgic telegrams by replying to this email. 

Dan Levy
Editorial Director

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