Facebook prototypes Favorites for close friends microsharing

Facebook is building its own version of Instagram Close Friends, the company confirms to TechCrunch. There are a lot people that don’t share on Facebook because it can feel risky or awkward as its definition of “friends” has swelled to include family, work colleagues and distant acquaintances. No one wants their boss or grandma seeing their weekend partying or edgy memes. There are whole types of sharing, like Snapchat’s Snap Map-style live location tracking, that feel creepy to expose to such a wide audience.

The social network needs to get a handle on microsharing. Yet Facebook has tried and failed over the years to get people to build Friend Lists for posting to different subsets of their network.

Back in 2011, Facebook said that 95% of users hadn’t made a single list. So it tried auto-grouping people into Smart Lists like High School Friends and Co-Workers, and offered manual always-see-in-feed Close Friends and only-see-important-updates Acquaintances lists. But they too saw little traction and few product updates in the past eight years. Facebook ended up shutting down Friend Lists Feeds last year for viewing what certain sets of friends shared.

Then a year ago, Instagram made a breakthrough. Instead of making a complicated array of Friend Lists you could never remember who was on, it made a single Close Friends list with a dedicated button for sharing to them from Stories. Instagram’s research found 85% of a user’s Direct messages go to the same three people, so why not make that easier for Stories without pulling everyone into a group thread? Last month I wrote that “I’m surprised Facebook doesn’t already have its own Close Friends feature, and it’d be smart to build one.”

How Facebook Favorites works

Now Facebook is in fact prototyping its version of Instagram Close Friends called Favorites. It lets users designate certain friends as Favorites, and then instantly post their Story from Facebook or Messenger to just those people instead of all their friends, as is the default.

The feature was first spotted inside Messenger by reverse engineering master and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. Buried in the Android app is the code that let Wong generate the screenshots (above) of this unreleased feature. They show how when users go to share a Story from Messenger, Facebook offers to let users post it to Favorites, and edit who’s on that list or add to it from algorithmic suggestions. Users in that Favorites list would then be the only recipients of that post within Stories, like with Instagram Close Friends.

 

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to me that this feature is a prototype that the Messenger team created. It’s an early exploration of the microsharing opportunity, and the feature isn’t officially testing internally with employees or publicly in the wild. The spokesperson describes the Favorites feature as a type of shortcut for sharing to a specific set of people. They tell me that Facebook is always exploring new ways to share, and as discussed at its F8 conference this year, Facebook is focused on improving the experience of sharing with and staying more connected to your closest friends.

Unlocking creepier sharing

There are a ton of benefits Facebook could get from a Favorites feature if it ever launches. First, users might share more often if they can make content visible to just their best pals, as those people wouldn’t get annoyed by over-posting. Second, Facebook could get new, more intimate types of content shared, from the heartfelt and vulnerable to the silly and spontaneous to the racy and shocking — stuff people don’t want every single person they’ve ever accepted a friend request from to see. Favorites could reduce self-censorship.

“No one has ever mastered a close friends graph and made it easy for people to understand . . . People get friend requests and they feel pressure to accept,” Instagram director of product Robby Stein told me when it launched Close Friends last year. “The curve is actually that your sharing goes up and as you add more people initially, as more people can respond to you. But then there’s a point where it reduces sharing over time.” Google+, Path and other apps have died chasing this purposefully selective microsharing behavior.

Facebook Favorites could stimulate lots of sharing of content unique to its network, thereby driving usage and ad views. After all, Facebook said in April that it had 500 million daily Stories users across Facebook and Messenger, the same number as Instagram Stories and WhatsApp Status.

Before Instagram launched Close Friends, it actually tested the feature under the name Favorites and allowed you to share feed posts as well as Stories to just that subset of people. And last month Instagram launched the Close Friends-only messaging app Threads that lets you share your Auto-Status about where or what you’re up to.

Facebook Favorites could similarly unlock whole new ways to connect. Facebook can’t follow some apps like Snapchat down more privacy-centric product paths because it knows users are already uneasy about it after 15 years of privacy scandals. Apps built for sharing to different graphs than Facebook have been some of the few social products that have succeeded outside its empire, from Twitter’s interest graph, to TikTok’s fandoms of public entertainment, to Snapchat’s messaging threads with besties.

Instagram Threads

A competent and popular Facebook Favorites could let it try products in location, memes, performances, Q&A, messaging, live streaming and more. It could build its own take on Instagram Threads, let people share exact location just with Favorites instead of just what neighborhood they’re in with Nearby Friends or create a dedicated meme resharing hub like the LOL experiment for teens it shut down. At the very least, it could integrate with Instagram Close Friends so you could syndicate posts from Instagram to your Facebook Favorites.

The whole concept of Favorites aligns with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s privacy-focused vision for social networking. “Many people prefer the intimacy of communicating one-on-one or with just a few friends,” he writes. Facebook can’t just be the general purpose catch-all social network we occasionally check for acquaintances’ broadcasted life updates. To survive another 15 years, it must be where people come back each day to get real with their dearest friends. Less can be more.

Facebook fails to keep Messenger Kids’ safety promise

Facebook’s messaging app for under 13s, Messenger Kids — which launched two years ago pledging a “private” chat space for kids to talk with contacts specifically approved by their parents — has run into an embarrassing safety issue.

The Verge obtained messages sent by Facebook to an unknown number of parents of users of the app informing them the company had found what it couches as “a technical error” which allowed a friend of a child to create a group chat with them in the app which invited one or more of the second child’s parent-approved friends — i.e. without those secondary contacts having been approved by the parent of the first child.

Facebook did not make a public disclosure of the safety issue. We’ve reached out to the company with questions.

It earlier confirmed the bug to the Verge, telling it: “We recently notified some parents of Messenger Kids account users about a technical error that we detected affecting a small number of group chats. We turned off the affected chats and provided parents with additional resources on Messenger Kids and online safety.”

The issue appears to have arisen as a result of how Messenger Kids’ permissions are applied in group chat scenarios — where the multi-user chats apparently override the system of required parental approval for contacts who kids are chatting with one on one.

But given the app’s support for group messaging it’s pretty incredible that Facebook engineers failed to robustly enforce an additional layer of checks for friends of friends to avoid unapproved users (who could include adults) from being able to connect and chat with children.

The Verge reports that “thousands” of children were left in chats with unauthorized users as a result of the flaw.

Despite its long history of playing fast and loose with user privacy, at the launch of Messenger Kids in 2017 the then head of Facebook Messenger, David Marcus, was quick to throw shade at other apps kids might use to chat — saying: “In other apps, they can contact anyone they want or be contacted by anyone.”

Turns out Facebook’s Messenger Kids has also allowed unapproved users into chatrooms it claimed as safe spaces for kids, saying too that it had developed the app in “lockstep” with the FTC.

We’ve reached out to the FTC to ask if it will be investigating the safety breach.

Friends’ data has been something of a recurring privacy blackhole for Facebook — enabling, for example, the misuse of millions of users’ personal information without their knowledge or consent as a result of the expansive permissions Facebook wrapped around it, when the now defunct political data company, Cambridge Analytica, paid a developer to harvest Facebook data to build psychographic profiles of US voters.

The company is reportedly on the verge of being issued with a $5BN penalty by the FTC related to an investigation of whether it breached earlier privacy commitments made to the regulator.

Various data protection laws govern apps that process children’s data, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa) in the US and the General Data Protection Regulation in Europe. But while there are potential privacy issues here with the Messenger Kids flaw, given children’s data may have been shared with unauthorized third parties as a result of the “error”, the main issue of concern for parents is likely the safety risk of their children being exposed to people they have not authorized in an unsupervised video chat environment.

On that issue current laws have less of a support framework to offer.

Although — in Europe — rising concern about a range of risks and harms kids can face when going online has led the UK government to seek to regulate the area.

recently published white paper sets out its plan to regulate a broad range of online harms, including proposing a mandatory duty of care on platforms to take reasonable steps to protect users from a range of harms, such as child sexual exploitation.

Takeaways from F8 and Facebook’s next phase

Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Josh Constine and Frederic Lardinois discuss major announcements that came out of Facebook’s F8 conference and dig into how Facebook is trying to redefine itself for the future.

Though touted as a developer-focused conference, Facebook spent much of F8 discussing privacy upgrades, how the company is improving its social impact, and a series of new initiatives on the consumer and enterprise side. Josh and Frederic discuss which announcements seem to make the most strategic sense, and which may create attractive (or unattractive) opportunities for new startups and investment.

“This F8 was aspirational for Facebook. Instead of being about what Facebook is, and accelerating the growth of it, this F8 was about Facebook, and what Facebook wants to be in the future.

That’s not the newsfeed, that’s not pages, that’s not profiles. That’s marketplace, that’s Watch, that’s Groups. With that change, Facebook is finally going to start to decouple itself from the products that have dragged down its brand over the last few years through a series of nonstop scandals.”

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Josh and Frederic dive deeper into Facebook’s plans around its redesign, Messenger, Dating, Marketplace, WhatsApp, VR, smart home hardware and more. The two also dig into the biggest news, or lack thereof, on the developer side, including Facebook’s Ax and BoTorch initiatives.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

Facebook to encrypt Instagram messages ahead of integration with WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger

Facebook is planning to roll out end-to-end encryption for Instagram messages, as part of a broader integration effort across the company’s messaging platforms, including WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

First reported by The New York Times, the social media giant said reworking the underlying infrastructure of its three messaging apps will allow users to talk to each other more easily. The apps will reportedly remain independent of one another — with Instagram and WhatsApp bringing in 1 billion and 1.5 billion users, respectively.

In doing so, Facebook is adding end-to-end encryption to Instagram messages. That will bring a new level of security and privacy to Instagram users for the first time. Facebook will also begin encrypting Facebook Messenger by default, which has, to date, required users to manually switch on the feature.

So far, only WhatsApp messages are end-to-end encrypted by default.

The plans are part of the company’s effort to keep people on the platform for longer, the Times reported, at a time when the company has 2.2 billion users but user trust has declined following a string of privacy scandals and security incidents. End-to-end encrypted messages can’t be read beyond the sender and the recipient — not even Facebook. In shutting itself out of the loop, it reduces the amount of data it can access — and can be theoretically stolen by hackers.

“We want to build the best messaging experiences we can; and people want messaging to be fast, simple, reliable and private,” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We’re working on making more of our messaging products end-to-end encrypted and considering ways to make it easier to reach friends and family across networks.”

“As you would expect, there is a lot of discussion and debate as we begin the long process of figuring out all the details of how this will work,” the spokesperson said, without providing a timeline on the planned unification.

But how the integration will be met by European regulators is anybody’s guess.

Two years ago, Facebook rolled back its plans to begin sharing WhatsApp user data with the social network for advertising at the request of U.K. data protection authorities, putting the plan on ice across the European continent. Under the proposed changes to its terms and conditions, WhatsApp would have shared the user’s phone number that was used to verify their account, and the last time they used the service. That led to concerns about privacy, given that a real-world identity isn’t needed for WhatsApp, unlike Facebook, which requires users display their real names.

Facebook acknowledged that it didn’t have answers just yet about how it plans to navigate the issue, citing the early stages of its planned integration.

The app integrations are said to be a priority for 2019, with an eye for a 2020 release, the Times said.

Facebook prototypes Unsend 6 months after Zuckerberg retracted messages

In April, TechCrunch broke the news that some of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook messages were deleted from recipients’ inboxes in what some saw as a violation of user trust and abuse of power since Facebook Messenger doesn’t have an Unsend button. The next morning, Facebook suddenly announced that it would actually build this Unsend functionality for everyone. But six months went by without a peep about the feature, furthering suspicions that the announcement that it would release an Unsend button was merely a PR driven response to the scandal, even if Facebook was just taking time to figure out the right way to build it.

Late last week, TechCrunch asked Facebook about its progress on Unsend ahead of the six month mark, and the company told us “Though we have nothing to announce today, we have previously confirmed that we intend to ship a feature like this and are still planning to do so.”

Now we have our first look at the feature thanks to TechCrunch’s favorite tipster Jane Manchun Wong. She’s managed to generate screenshots of a prototype Unsend button from Facebook Messenger’s Android code. Other Facebook prototypes discovered by Wong like the Your Activity screentime dashboard, Instagram’s video calling and music stickers, and more features have gone on to receive official launches.

Currently, you can only delete messages from your own inbox — they still remain in the recipients’ inbox. But with this Unsend feature prototype, you’re able to remove a message from both sides of a conversation. However, the code indicates that in the current prototype there’s a “time limit”. That may mean users would only have a certain amount of time after they send a message to unsend it. That would essentially be an editing window in which users could take back what they said.

In response, a spokesperson confirmed that “Facebook internally tests products and features before they ship to the public so we can ensure the quality of the experience.”

The Unsend feature could be useful to people who say something stupid or inappropriate, disclose a secret they shouldn’t have, or want to erase evidence of their misdeeds. That could make users more comfortable speaking freely on the app, since they know they can retract their texts. Snapchat’s messages self-destruct unless purposefully saved to the thread by a user, permitting more off-the-cuff chatting.

But Unsend could also open vectors for abuse, as users could harass people over Messenger and then delete the evidence. Facebook will need to ensure that Unsend doesn’t accidentally become a weapon for bullies. That might mean allowing users to turn off the ability for their conversation partners to Unsend messages on a thread by thread basis, and/or a report button specifically for flagging messages that have since been retracted.

Facebook’s acquisition Instagram already lets users Unsend messages and Snapchat added an Unsend option in June. But those chat products are more designed for having fun, discussing memes, and sharing photos with close friends. Messenger has positioned itself as a core communications utility for the world. Messing with the permanence of messages could make it feel less reliable or truthful to some users. When we talk in person, our conversations aren’t written in stone forever…but there’s also no way to force someone to forget what you said.

[Postscript: Ideally, Facebook builds this similarly to Gmail’s Undo Send option, where you can only use it for a very short period of time after a message is sent, but still actually deliver messages in real time. The real confusion and trouble would come with being able to unsend messages well after they’ve been sent and even read.]

Facebook Messenger internally tests voice commands for chat, calls

Facebook Messenger could soon let you use your voice to dictate and send messages, initiate voice calls and create reminders. Messenger for Android’s code reveals a new M assistant button atop the message thread screen that activates listening for voice commands for those functionalities. Voice control could make Messenger simpler to use hands-free or while driving, more accessible for the vision or dexterity-impaired and, perhaps one day, easier for international users whose native languages are hard to type.

Facebook Messenger was previously spotted testing speech transcription as part of the Aloha voice assistant believed to be part of Facebook’s upcoming Portal video chat screen device. But voice commands in the M assistant are new, and demonstrate an evolution in Facebook’s strategy since its former head of Messenger David Marcus told me voice “is not something we’re actively working on right now” in September 2016 onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt.

The prototype was discovered by all-star TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong, who’d previously discovered prototypes of Instagram Video Calling, Facebook’s screen time digital well-being dashboard and Lyft’s scooter rentals before they officially launched. When reached for comment, a Facebook Messenger spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that Facebook is internally testing the voice command feature. They told TechCrunch, “We often experiment with new experiences on Messenger with employees. We have nothing more to share at this time.”

Messenger is eager to differentiate itself from SMS, Snapchat, Android Messages and other texting platforms. The app has aggressively adopted visual communication features like Facebook Stories, augmented reality filters and more. Wong today spotted Messenger prototyping augmented reality camera effects being rolled into the GIFs, Stickers and Emoji menu in the message composer. Facebook confirms this is now in testing with a small percentage of Messenger users.

Facebook has found that users aren’t so keen on tons of bells and whistles like prominent camera access or games getting in the way of chat, so Facebook plans to bury those more in a forthcoming simplified redesign of Messenger. But voice controls add pure utility without obstructing Messenger’s core value proposition and could end up getting users to chat more if they’re eventually rolled out.

Chat app Line hopes its own crypto token can solve its user growth problem

Line, the Japanese messaging app firm that’s best known for its cutesy characters and stickers, is pushing deeper into crypto after it launched its own token to help grow its stagnant user base.

Line went public two years ago with 218 million monthly active users, but it hasn’t been able to kick on. The company no longer gives out its worldwide user number, but the number of active users in its four biggest markets has fallen from 169 million in Q2 2017 to 164 million in its recent Q2 2018 period.

Link — Line’s token — isn’t being minted through an ICO, instead, it’ll be given out to Line users as an incentive for using certain services. Line hasn’t said exactly how it can be earned yet, although it is likely that it’ll be tied to specific activities to promote engagement.

Line plans to use Link to incentive user activity on its messaging app and other services

The token will be listed on Bitbox — Line’s crypto exchange — and it’ll be used it to buy content like stickers and webcomics, as well as other Line services. It’ll also be possible to use Link to get a lower commission rate on trading in the same way that Binance, the world’s largest exchange, uses its BNB token.

Line currently has a virtual currency for its in-app content and services, and you’d imagine that Link will replace it in the future.

It’s worth noting, however, that Link hasn’t launched in Japan yet. That’s because Line is awaiting regulatory approval for its token and exchange, so, for now, those in Japan — which is Line’s largest market — will earn virtual tokens which can be traded for Link in the future.

Line is struggling to grow its user numbers

Link will launch next month, and it follows the announcement of BitBox in July and the launch of a dedicated crypto fund in early August.

Line has dodged the legal questions around token sales by not holding an ICO, and the fact it is using the currency to incentivize user engagement and activity isn’t a huge surprise. Line went public in a dual U.S-Japan IPO that raised over $1 billion in 2016 but, despite user numbers declining, it has grown its revenue through additional services.

Increased competition from the likes of Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp is likely its biggest threat, so incentivizing users is a logical strategy. Of course, that depends on how useful Link becomes. If users can exchange it for a decent amount of cash or credits inside Line’s platform it may gain appeal, but if they just pick up trivial amounts, it may be less interesting to them. The bigger picture will be when Link replaces Line’s virtual currency for all purchases but that alone isn’t likely to boost user engagement.

Despite declining user numbers, Line has grown revenue by pushing out services that connect to its messaging platform.

Line also plans to use Link — and the blockchain it has developed to power it — to host decentralized applications (dapps) that will connect to its messaging platform. The company already does a lot more than messaging — for example payments, ride-hailing, music and videos — and it plans to tap third-party developers to build dapps. Generally, though, dapps haven’t taken off. The collectibles game Cryptokitties did blow up late last year, but studies have suggested user activity is massively down this year as the fad has slowly worn off.

Crypto enthusiasts will no doubt take positives from Line’s latest move — it is arguably the largest company to embrace crypto, in terms of end-user audience reach — but it remains to be seen whether Link and its dapps platform can help it crack its user growth and retention issues.

“Over the last seven years, Line was able to grow into a global service because of our users, and now with Link, we wanted to build a user-friendly reward system that gives back to our users. With Link, we would like to continue developing as a user participation-based platform, one that rewards and shares added value through the introduction of easy-to-use dapps for people’s daily lives,” said Line CEO Takeshi Idezawa in a statement.

Unlike Bitcoin, which is mined, Line has minted a total of one billion Link tokens which it said will be “gradually issued according to how this ecosystem develops.” The company plans to keep 200 million tokens, with the remaining 800 million made available as user rewards.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

What the Facebook Crypto team could build

Facebook is invading the blockchain, but how? Back in May, Facebook formed a cryptocurrency team to explore the possibilities, and today it removed a roadblock to revealing its secret plans.

Former head of Messenger David Marcus, who leads the Facebook Crypto team, today announced he was stepping down from the board of Coinbase, the biggest crypto startup. Marcus was formerly the president of PayPal and helped Facebook Messenger adopt chatbot commerce and peer-to-peer payments, so he was both a natural choice for Coinbase’s board and Facebook’s blockchain skunklabs.

Facebook told CoinDesk this was to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, which is exactly what it was. Marcus provided a statement to TechCrunch explaining he was stepping down “because of the new group I’m setting up at Facebook around blockchain,” noting that “Getting to know Brian [Armstrong, CEO of Coinbase], who’s become a friend, and the whole Coinbase leadership team and board has been an immense privilege. I’ve been thoroughly impressed by the talent and execution the team has demonstrated during my tenure, and I wish the team all the success it deserves going forward.”

Now Facebook is cleared to start publicly talking about its plans, though it hasn’t yet. “We are still in the very early stages and we are considering a number of different applications for the blockchain. But we don’t have anything else to share at this time,” a Facebook spokesperson tells me. So what could Facebook be building? I see three main consumer-facing opportunities.

3% off with FaceCoin

Facebook could build a cryptocurrency wallet with its own token that people could use to pay for things with partnered businesses or that they discover through Facebook ads. Because blockchain can make transactions free or very cheap, Facebook and its partners could sidestep the typical credit card processing fees. That would potentially allow Facebook to offer users  “3% off purchases made with FaceCoin” or a similar promotion. 

Discounts like this could draw users into Facebook’s cryptocurrency feature. It’s well-positioned to run such a scheme thanks to its extensive connections with more than six million advertisers and 65 million businesses that have Facebook Pages. The social network could eat the costs of running the program, passing the transaction fee savings on to the users, while touting partnerships with Facebook Crypto as ways to boost sales for businesses. That could in turn get clients to spend more money on Facebook ads, as the discounts would enhance conversion rates and drive sales.

One thing we know for sure is that Facebook won’t be building on the Stellar protocol. Facebook debunked a Business Insider report saying it was, telling TechCrunch it was not in talks with Stellar or planning to build on it.

P2P and micropayments

Facebook already lets you send friends money through Messenger for free, but only with a connected debit card or PayPal account. Facebook could offer cryptocurrency-based payments between friends to let a wider range of users settle debts for shared dinners or taxis through Messenger. Users might fund their Facebook Crypto wallet once with a payment, possibly with a one-time transaction fee, and then they could send and receive the tokens for free from then on. Blockchain becoming the backbone of peer-to-peer payments could further increase engagement with Messenger for its 1.3 billion users.

Meanwhile, Facebook could also potentially use cryptocurrency to let fans send micropayments to their favorite creators, like video stars and game streamers. Facebook recently debuted its own virtual (not crypto) currency, called Facebook Stars, that users can buy and send to creators, who can then cash them out for one cent each. Facebook takes an undisclosed cut, but gives to the creator the majority of what users spend on Stars.

Facebook could potentially undergird this system with cryptocurrency to alleviate transaction fees and let people tip creators smaller amounts of cash for exclusive content or just to show their appreciation. Facebook started with a minimum of $3 tips at a time so that transaction fees wouldn’t be too high of a percentage of the total purchase. A cryptocurrency solution could let users efficiently tip much smaller amounts, which could lure people toward the behavior. The more money Facebook can deliver to internet celebrities, the more popular ones it can recruit to live on its platform and the more content they’ll produce.

Facebook Stars. Image via KiwiFarm

Facebook Connect for crypto

A top problem in the world of decentralized blockchain apps is how you bring your identity with you. Securely connecting your wallet, blockchain-based virtual goods and biographical info to new dApps can be a laborious process. Users typically have to type in long, complicated alphanumeric keys that are tough to remember and annoying to input. User experience design around identity in the blockchain space lags far behind what we’re used to with mainstream social apps like Facebook Connect, which uses a OAuth single sign-on to let you instantly join apps without creating a new username and password, or filling out a profile and uploading a photo.

Facebook could use its expertise in operating a popular identity platform to ease login to dApps. While the company has faced plenty of privacy issues and attacks on election integrity, Facebook has a strong record of not being traditionally hacked. It hasn’t suffered a massive user data breach like LinkedIn, Twitter and other social networks. Using an overtly centralized identity system to connect with decentralized apps might be counterintuitive, but Facebook could deliver the UX convenience necessary to unlock a new wave of blockchain utility.

For now it’s unclear if Facebook will end up directly competing with Coinbase in the exchange and wallet space, or if it might instead partner with the blockchain mainstay to accelerate its efforts. And on the enterprise engineering side, Facebook could build some decentralized storage infrastructure to cut its massive server bills. But with deep pockets, tons of tech talent and ubiquity amongsts social networkers and businesses, Facebook Crypto’s primary limits are its ambitions and the extent of user trust.

Facebook builds its own AR games for Messenger video chat

Facebook is diving deeper into in-house game development with the launch of its own version of Snapchat’s multiplayer augmented reality video chat games. Today, Facebook Messenger globally launches its first two AR video chat games that you can play with up to six people.

“Don’t Smile” is like a staring contest that detects if you grin, and then users AR to contort your it’s an exaggerated Joker’s smirk while awarding your opponent the win. “Asteroids Attack” sees you move your face around the navigate a space ship, avoiding rocks and grabbing laser beam powerups. Soon, Facebook also plans to launch “Beach Bump” for passing an AR ball back and forth, and a “Kitten Craze” cat matching game. To play the games, you start a video chat, hit the Star button to open the filter menu, and then select one of the games. You can snap and share screenshots to your chat thread while you play.

The games are effectively a way to pass the time while you video chat, rather than something you’d ever play on your own. They could be a hit with parents and grandparents who are away and want to spend time with a kid…who isn’t exactly the best conversationalist.

Facebook tells me it built these games itself using the AR Studio tool it launched last year to let developers create their own AR face filters. When asked if game development would be available to everyone through AR studio, a spokesperson told me “Not today, but we’ve seen sucessful short-session AR games developed by the creator community and are always looking out for ways to bring the best AR content to the FB family of apps.”

For now, there will be no ads, sponsored branding, or in-app purchases in Messenger’s video chat games. But those all offer opportunities for Facebook and potentially outside developers to earn money. Facebook could easily show an ad interstitial between game rounds, let brands build games to promote movie releases or product launches, or let you buy powerups to beat friends or cosmetically upgrade your in-game face.

Snapchat’s Snappables games launched in April

The games feel less polished than the launch titles for Snapchat’s Snappables gaming platform that launched in April. Snapchat focused on taking over your whole screen with augmented reality, transporting you into space or a disco dance hall. Facebook’s games merely overlay a few graphics on the world around you. But Facebook’s games are more purposefully designed for split-screen multiplayer. Snapchat is reportedly building its own third-party game development platform, but it seems Facebook wanted to get the drop on it.

The AR video chat games live separately from the Messenger Instant Games platform the company launched last year. These include arcade classics and new mobile titles that users can play by themselves and challenge friends over high-scores. Facebook now allows developers of Instant Games to monetize with in-app purchases and ads, foreshadowing what could come to AR video chat games.

Facebook has rarely developed its own games. It did build a few mini-games like an arcade pop-a-shot style basketball game and a soccer game to show off what the Messenger Instant Games platform could become. But typically it’s stuck to letting outside developers lead. Here, it may be trying to set examples of what developers should build before actually spawning a platform around video chat games.

Now with over 1.3 billion users, Facebook Messenger is seeking more ways to keep people engaged. Having already devoured many people’s one-on-one utility chats, it’s fun group chats, video calling, and gaming that could get people spending more time in the app.

2.5 billion people use at least one of Facebook’s apps

Facebook is hiding that users are leaving its main app but sticking with Instagram and WhatsApp by publicizing a new metric. Facebook today for the first time announced that in June, 2.5 billion people used at least one of its apps: Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, or Messenger. That’s a helpful number because it counts real people, rather than accounts, since people can have multiple accounts on a single app. 2.5 billion people compares to 2.23 billion monthly users on Facebook, 1 billion users on Instagram, 1.5 billion users on WhatsApp, and 1.3 billion users on Messenger.

Mark Zuckerberg announced the new stat on Facebook’s Q2 2018 earnings call following a tough report that saw its user growth slow to its lowest rate ever. Zuckerberg said the 2.5 billion count “Individual people rather than active accounts” which he says “excludes when people have multiple accounts on a single app. And it reflects that many people use more than one of our services.”

It seems as if Facebook announced the stat in hopes of deflecting attention from the fact that its user count shrank in Europe and was flat in the US & Canada, contributing to extraordinarily low monthly and daily user growth. That growth trouble in turn sent Facebook’s share price down over 9 percent in after-hours trading.

On the 2.5 billion stat, Facebook CFO David Wehner explained that “We believe this number better reflects the size of our community.” He also clarified that Facebook’s monthly active user count of 2.23 billion “does count multiple accounts for a single user, and that accounts for 10 percent of Facebook’s MAU” or 223 million.

By bundling the user counts into a “family of apps audience metric”, Facebook can obscure the fact that its core app is hitting a wall. Instead, it can rely on WhatsApp and Instagram to shore up the number. For example, if teens slip from Facebook to Instagram, they’ll still be counted in the new metric. But that doesn’t change the fact that the company’s main money-maker is losing its edge.