The most neglected aspect of any smartphone tends to be the actual phone. You know, the part where you communicate with another human being using your voice and not a pizza emoji. That’s partly because talking on the phone is invariably an exercise in agonizing cross-talk and stutters, but it’s also because of how we organize our contacts today. In short, we don’t. But you know who does? Facebook.
Today, Facebook introduces Hello, an Android app (iOS doesn’t let apps play with the necessary phone permissions) that takes the service’s unprecedentedly comprehensive access to all of our contact information and crams it into a delightful dialer. That a dialer can be considered delightful in the first place might seem like a stretch; it is, after all, just a bunch of numbers, an entry field for contacts, a star, and a pound sign whose main function is reminding you of how much you despise hashtags. It’s the most utilitarian part of your phone, and it enables your most awkward moments with it.Facebook
And yet! Hello manages to rethink the dialer in subtle ways that make the process of calling someone (or, importantly, some business) exceptionally simple—as long as you and that someone have complementary Facebook privacy settings, or they were already in your phone’s contact list to begin with. Which is to say, if you’re friends with someone and they’ve made their number available, they’re suddenly in your phone, whether they’ve given you their number directly or not. If they haven’t made their number public, you won’t suddenly be able to prank them. You will, though, be given the option to place a VOIP call over Facebook Messenger, and get access to whatever other contact info—like, say, an email address—they’ve made public.
If this all sounds like an LSAT practice exam set-up, that’s only because Facebook’s privacy settings permutations are manifold. In practice, it’s very simple: You can either call a Facebook friend or you can’t. If you can’t, you can just message them, or email them, or better yet leave them alone.
If this also sounds like a reminder to double check your Facebook privacy settings, good! You should. Before you use Hello you should go to your Facebook Page and dig into the Privacy portion of the Settings page. There, you can adjust who can look you up by your phone number, be it Everyone, Friends of Friends, or just Friends. That’s still not quite granular enough for my liking, especially with the kind of access Hello gives. It’s unlikely you want every single friend you’ve picked up in the last decade of social networking or so to know what hemisphere you live in, much less give them a direct conduit to breathing heavily into your ear holes.
But Facebook has put systems in place to help with the unpleasant sides of phone communication as well, that range from subtle to absolute. Incoming calls will show a profile picture of an incoming caller, even if they aren’t in your phone’s contact list, along with whatever FB info they make public, like city and employer. It’ll even tell you if it’s their birthday, so you know to launch into song. Nuisance callers can be perma-blocked with a simple tap, and you can ask Hello to automatically block numbers that other users have blocked in volume, which is to say telephonic spammers.Facebook
My favorite part, though, in my brief time with Hello, is being able to call up a business of interest directly from the dialer. Feel like carryout pizza? I just start typing Post Office Pies in Hello, and I’m suddenly a single tap away from placing my order. I’m not friends with Post Office Pies on Facebook, nor am I a fan of its page. But it’s near me, and the number is publicly listed on Facebook, so it’s ready and waiting for me.
That doesn’t save me all that much time from searching for the same company in Chrome, finding the right result, tapping the number, being booted to the stock Android dialer, and making the call. But it does save time, and more importantly removes nearly all of the friction from placing the call in the first place. I may still hate the destination of talking on the phone, but at least with Hello I no longer hate the journey.
So far I’m on board with Hello. It only took about a minute to sync nearly 1500 contacts, and the app both looks nicer and promises more functionality than the stock Android dialer. Little touches also make a significant difference; if I search for WIRED in Hello, I’m met with a list all of my contacts who have it listed under their work experience. Similarly, a search for Chicago brings up my friends who live there. It’s an instant set of organizing principles for your mobile phone book, as nimble as your friends’ profile completeness allows them to be.
More importantly, it addresses the serious contact gaps caused by how we interact today. Exchanging email addresses and phone numbers simply doesn’t happen as much as a lazy friend request might. Our contact lists are incomplete, out of date, disorganized, and full of redundancies. Facebook, for all of its faults and despite the attending privacy concerns, is none of those things. Hello is a contact list that evolves with your life and the lives of your friends, without requiring you to regularly track those friends down.
As for what Facebook gets out of it, for now it might be enough simply to make new app experience that people embrace, after a litany of disappointments from Home, Slingshot, and beyond. And it’s not hard to see how eventually it’ll be able to monetize interactions like my Post Office Pies search, or push me into Messenger interactions that I might otherwise have taken to SMS.
More than that, though, Hello has already reminded me of what makes Facebook essential. No matter how long I go without checking it, no matter how much I forget that it’s there, it remains a Rolodex of my life. Crippling phone anxiety may make calling my friends difficult sometimes, but now at least I know I’ll still be able to find them when I need to.