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The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly of Facebook’s Merged Messaging Announcement

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A merged infrastructure for Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram’s messaging is coming—and the initial reviews are mixed.

Late last week, The New York Times reported that Facebook will be merging the infrastructure of its messaging apps – Instagram’s direct messaging, WhatsApp messaging, and Facebook Messenger – by early 2020.

The announcement roused a number of feelings in the world of social. The change will likely bring some welcome changes, but also challenge the previously distinct Facebook properties, and users alike.

So, what is there to celebrate about this announcement- and what left us scratching our heads?

The Good: End-to-end encryption across the board.

When this change rolls out, it will unify encryption efforts for messaging across Facebook’s companies. At present, only WhatsApp messages are encrypted by default; encryption must be opted into on Facebook, and there is no option for encrypted messaging on Instagram.

End-to-end encryption in all its properties is a likely response to the persistent and justified privacy concerns that have plagued Facebook in recent years. Their statement that accompanied the announcement acknowledged this decision as “a major step that protects messages from being viewed by anyone except the participants in a conversation.” This is a particularly attractive development, in light of stories that revealed third-party access to private messaging on Facebook.

Whether or not it will be enough to recapture trust in the platform’s users, is anyone’s guess at this point- but it is a step in the right direction.

The Bad: Lots of unanswered questions about the logistics of this change.

In TechCrunch’s report on Facebook’s messaging announcement, they reminded readers of the company’s initial plan to share WhatsApp data with Facebook’s team for ad targeting. Data protection authorities in the United Kingdom objected vehemently enough for those plans to be reversed. But once the messaging is run on a common infrastructure, as is the plan (point of clarification: the messaging services will still operate in their standalone apps; only their underlying infrastructure will be merged), this becomes a more complicated issue.

Each app requires different levels of disclosure to engage; while WhatsApp and Instagram can be used with a sense of anonymity, Facebook requires a real identity to engage. Users who want to keep their usage of the apps separate, The New York Times correctly points out, may have a harder time doing so if common infrastructure can connect user data across platforms. Facebook’s response to these questions? “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 Ugly: How are the companies themselves handling the shift?

Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp initially promised the autonomy of each company, but recent high profile departures of the purchased companies’ CEO’s suggest that the mandate has changed. And the aforementioned “discussion and debate” about “how this will work” evidently includes managing employee hesitation or opposition to this change. The New York Times wrote of the staff reaction, “some Facebook employees said they were confused about what made combining the messaging services so compelling to Mr. Zuckerberg. Some said it was jarring because of his past promises about independence.” A recent rift between Facebook and WhatsApp employees over internal messaging indicates that the gradual merging of the formerly distinct entities isn’t going as smoothly as higher-ups may have hoped.

But as with so many other decisions Facebook has made in recent years, the potential for ad revenue seems to be driving this move. Quartz speculates, “it could be a compelling approach for advertisers who would be interested in reaching so many people at once.” Keeping people on the respective apps for longer, could yield more advertising dollars. Making their private correspondence feel safer is one way to achieve this. But to accomplish it, Zuckerberg and others fighting for this change will need to win over the teams responsible for the shift.

In any case, we won’t see the results of this announced change for nearly two years, so there’s still time to work out the kinks and hesitations—and the organizational rifts that clearly accompany it.

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