When Facebook jettisoned all Messenger interactions to a stand-alone app last summer, it was a mild annoyance, an end to the convenience of having the entire Facebook experience in one place.
Now that Messenger also exists as a website, though, it’s clear why Mark Zuckerberg was willing to make that trade. Messenger, freed from your phone, has a better chance than ever to survive as a standalone platform—even after Facebook’s inevitable decline.
It’s important to clarify that “inevitable” doesn’t mean “soon,” and “Facebook” means the core Facebook experience as it exists today, not Facebook the company. They’re important distinctions to make, because they’re the same ones Zuckerberg and his team do as they chart their path forward.
That Facebook as we know it—basically, the News Feed and a smattering of birthday notifications—will eventually lose traction isn’t a controversial thought. It’s just part of the inevitable crests and troughs of social networking. Today’s version of Facebook will continue to exist for as long as its current users stay active, which will be measured in decades, not years. But Facebook knows better than anyone that networks are fickle things, and that teens don’t want to spend time somewhere they can be poked by their parents. Not when they could be Snapchatting.
Just look at the acquisitions Facebook has made over the last several years. More importantly, look at how it’s treated them. Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus—all of them powerful platforms, all of them still standalone apps. Instead of subsuming what it thinks might be Next Big Thing, Facebook has quietly been hedging against its own future by simply buying up all of the candidates. They’ve said as much themselves; in announcing the purchase of Oculus, whose virtual reality technology has taken a leadership role in one of the next great digital frontiers, Zuckerberg repeatedly said that his company was preparing for “the platforms of tomorrow.”
No wonder, then, that Facebook devoted much of its F8 developer’s conference last month to promoting Messenger as its own platform, not a subset. It must have been a joy and a relief to realize that the company was in possession a new social network that not only didn’t cost it billions of dollars to acquire, but had in fact already largely been homegrown. The future is coming from inside the building.
Messenger had already recently added payments, and a handful of GIF-friendly apps. There was enough there to make it feel like its own entity, even if it was essentially the same prom date in a slightly different tux.
A desktop presence, though, allows Messenger to serve a genuinely different function than before. More importantly, and for the first time, it takes on a dimension that it arguably couldn’t have if it were it still just a subset of Facebook proper. Messenger can now compete less with GroupMe, SMS, and WhatsApp (which, again, is Facebook-owned; best not to duplicate efforts) and more with the chat apps that have come to shape how we communicate online during the bulk of the day.
Think Slack, HipChat, Yammer, Gchat, even AIM. They all serve a core function that Facebook hasn’t yet been able to crack, despite attempts like Facebook At Work. Facebook At Work is still Facebook; Messenger is a whole new experience, freed from any entrenched assumptions about what Facebook is or isn’t for.
If you’re doubtful whether this is truly where Facebook is headed, you really only need to check in with AOL. From a help page posting on April 1st:
On April 15th 2015, Facebook is making an update to their API (application program interface) that affects how AIM and other applications connect to Facebook.
As part of the API update, Facebook will remove support for third party clients like AIM to integrate with their chat feature. You will continue to receive Facebook notifications in your AIM Updates feed and everything else you’ve come to know and love about AIM will stay the same.
In other words: Facebook is pulling the plug on its new rivals.
The Messenger Platform is still only a few weeks old; it’s too early to tell just how much of a challenge it can mount to the desktop stalwarts. Plenty of Facebook’s attempts to spin off experiences—Paper and Slingshot come to mind—have fallen flat. But remember that Slack grew from nothing to a billion dollar business in just two years. With the resources and built-in user base Messenger has at its disposal, it’s got plenty of potential.
At the very least, Messenger.com will help you keep your phone in your pocket while you’re at your desk. In time, though, it could become more of a core Facebook experience than Facebook itself has been in years.