Facebook uses SMS to acquire users even as it works to supplant the format

By Nathaniel Mott , written on December 5, 2012

From The News Desk

Facebook isn't big on birthdays, it seems. Rather than announcing that users in India, Indonesia, Venezuela, Australia, and South Africa will be able to sign up for its Facebook Messenger service via SMS yesterday, on the format's birthday, the company chose to hold the news until yesterday morning. For shame.

Essentially, users who live in one of the areas listed above – which, eventually, will extend to other areas, including the United States – are able to sign up for Facebook Messenger without a Facebook account or email address. The hope is that this will encourage people to sign up for and become accustomed to using the app for text-based messaging, allowing Facebook to piggy-back off the cheap, open nature of SMS to gain new users who may have otherwise stuck with their text messages.

This land-grab falls in line with other initiatives like Facebook Zero, which offers users free access to their Facebook accounts, and the company's drive to get Messenger everywhere from iOS and Android to direct integration with Mozilla's Firefox. By appealing to the lowest common denominator – people who have cellphones but no data plan – and convincing them that Facebook is the Web, the company may be able to reel in its next billion users.

Ultimately, however, Facebook may be inadvertently proving that SMS is here to stay. The format is open, near-ubiquitous, and, perhaps most importantly, cheap. Intrepid inventors and tinkerers have rigged the format to perform all kinds of functions, from saving sheep to donating to the Red Cross following Hurricane Sandy. Now Facebook is using it to prove what, exactly? That it's also a better login or sign-up mechanism than email?

Perhaps Facebook is hoping that it can play the well-disguised assassin who destroys the competition from inside. If that's the case, however, Facebook needs to sharpen its knife a bit first. Facebook Messenger has yet to present a clear idea of why it can beat the plain-jane text message. Where its competitors, like Kik, WeChat/Weixin, Kakao Talk, and LINE have embraced mobile platforms and found a way to engage with users, Facebook has offered a method of communication with scant benefit over the format it's trying to supplant.

We've seen this issue before. Every time a new social network or app asks users to sign in with Facebook or Twitter they're implicitly telling users that they'd better not get rid of those other accounts. Hell, even Facebook and Twitter require email addresses, essentially dooming anyone who maybe didn't even want to sign up for an email account to a life of flooded inboxes and spam email.

If you're trying to replace a technology, it's probably a good idea to not build on top of something that you're trying to destroy. Requiring that users have a Facebook account before using Facebook Messenger isn't preposterous – asking them to switch to a new platform with essentially no incentive is.