What Facebook's Messenger debacle says about the company... both the brilliant and the terrible

By Sarah Lacy , written on August 12, 2014

From The News Desk

The latest reason to be pissed at Facebook was the company's decision to force users to download Facebook Messenger if they'd like to be able to read, access, or send messages on their phones. It's not a surprising strategy for Mark Zuckerberg & Co. (I'll get more into that in a minute.) And, perhaps, it is also not surprising that a product Facebook built in house has been a total dud and pissed off users.

Too harsh? I'll put it this way: The average review of Messenger on Apple's app store is one star with 21,637 ratings -- even worse than Facebook's last blunder to take over more of your mobile experience, Facebook Home. Ouch.

Some on the Pando staff have argued it's all a tempest in a teapot, and that the Messenger experience is far more seamless. Many others still have argued reports that the new app is more invasive simply aren't true. No matter: It seems the people have (so far) spoken. After several stories detailing the hysteria, Facebook's continued cluelessness to what readers want and even elaborate work arounds to start and then stop downloading messenger, Facebook seems to be no longer forcing users to download the new app... at least not as many of them right now. Or at least, phones contained in my house.

This morning Facebook told me I had to download Messenger to view any messages. This afternoon it does not. Same experience on my husband's phone. And, no, neither of us had previously downloaded it.

I've reached out to Facebook PR for comment, as I haven't seen anything official on it. Hopefully we'll have an update from them soon. It's always possible this is simply a glitch on the phones in my household. [UPDATE: Facebook PR has written back to say the strategy has not changed, and that downloading Messenger is still mandatory. No explanation for why that is no longer the case on our phones. It emphasized this was a slow global roll out so I suppose it's possible that it's pulling back on how many users get these messages at this time. It also wouldn't be surprising if it were experimenting with how it's communicating the change to users, given the violent reaction. Seems an odd coincidence it's only phones contained in my household... email [email protected] if you have anymore information.]

But more to the point is what the whole thing says about Facebook. There are two important takeaways: One troubling and one impressive. One that speaks to the company's greatest Achilles Heel as long as I've covered it, and one that speaks to its greatest strength.

The first is just how much people distrust and are predisposed to dislike Facebook. Facebook has played a dangerous game since at least 2007 of daring users to quit the service if they don't like the direction it's going in. This started with the original introduction of the Newsfeed and has taken a myriad of iterations since. It's gotten better at apologizing... mostly. And slightly better at communicating what it's doing. But the problem is Facebook is as synonymous with disrespecting your privacy today as Microsoft was for abusing it's monopolist position in the post-Netscape days.

Each time Facebook wins the battle. It's simply too valuable for people to quit, or quit for long in large enough numbers. I've long been an outlier in arguing that "take it or leave it" stance isn't all bad: No large consumer site can function by allowing a vocal minority to dictate its strategy. Still, its relationship with users is like a sweater where threads are slowly becoming unraveled after each instance. Considering advertising is the cornerstone of Facebook's business, there's a risk there.

As this pertains to Messenger, Pando's Michael Carney referred to it earlier as a sort of reverse boy who cried wolf. Facebook arguably improved on the experience in this instance. But Facebook has run roughshod over users feelings, expectations, and trust so many times, that users assume that's what it's doing. It's easy for bad journalism to fan the flames. And when users see Facebook forcing them to do anything they simply assume there is an ulterior motive.

It's the great irony of Facebook: A communication company that has removed barriers like space and time from staying in close contact that can't for the life of itself correctly communicate its own changes to users.

The second is more interesting: Facebook's subtle move from borg to balkanization. Zuckerberg is just a master tactician of corporate strategy. Even when a playbook works, he's not wedded to it.

You could argue the strength of Twitter's product kept it from succumbing to a slow death between founder oustings, and Google's magical, money-printing paid search business model have given it license to try wild and wacky new business models without fear of near-term earnings misses. In the case of Facebook, it's been the brilliant and contrarian strategic mind of Zuckerberg that keeps it in the game and growing.

It's not that he's playing Chess when others are playing Checkers. It's that he's playing Risk. He's a devoted fan of the game, once translating it into Latin, so he could enjoy it in his favorite dead tongue. And it's absolutely how he operates his business. Other than Twitter and Snapchat, he's lost very, very few "countries" he's sought to acquire. Almost no one in the tech world says no to him right now. It helps that his acquisition math is wildly different that most competitors: He'll happily give up 10% of his company if it means he kneecaps the next Facebook early on. But it's also his BBQs, his walks in the woods, his promises of a "partnership." He's got his own Steve Jobs like reality distortion field, by many accounts of those woo'd, and those who've competed for deals and hires.

So what does this have to do with the brouhaha around Messenger? Early on Zuckerberg excelled at acquisitions via the borg strategy. It bought smart teams, killed the product and folded them in. It worked brilliantly, giving Facebook some of its best talent, several of whom stayed for quite a while making large contributions to the product. His message to would be sellers who were in demand then was simple: Facebook had one of the lowest ratios of engineers to users of any large Web site. In other words: There was no other place where individual engineering contributions could make such a huge difference to a billion users.

With Instagram, the strategy changed dramatically. The message became: Come here, and build a large company inside of Facebook. We won't interfere, YouTube-style. It worked with Whatsapp and Oculus Rift and others. It was no doubt also the message to Snapchat. And, it wasn't too dissimilar to the message given to former PayPal President David Marcus. He surprised insiders and investors when he left a big job at a big company to take a medium job as head of messaging at a big company. It was all the more surprising because the PayPal turn around was going so well. And even more surprising because his public explanation was he wanted to get back to being an entrepreneur.

Two things-- and two things alone-- explain it: David Marcus is full or it, or he was sold the same way Kevin Systrom and the rest were. Come build your own company inside Facebook's virtual Risk empire. 

There are three reasons this is brilliant. The first is that these honkingly big companies wouldn't sell without such guarantees. That's the obvious one. The second is it's what huge bases of users want to hear: Nothing will change and the Facebook you so distrust won't screw up the thing you love. That's more obvious. (Even if many users are dubious.)

But the third is what Zuckerberg and others have noticed about the speed and surprising adoption patterns of consumer apps in the mobile age: They're even more a crapshoot with even bigger binary outcomes than they were before, thanks to the huge market and immediate global spread of the products.

Like time travelers accidentally stepping on a moth and changing the fate of humanity, small tweaks are dramatically impacting what demographic uses these messaging apps and how. Consider Twitter. It wasn't intended to be the go-to app for breaking news and television reality shows. But a thousand little decisions at forks in the road lead it there. It's the same reason that Snapchat, Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so many other apps that essentially kinda do the same thing can all co-exist, compete, and grow with slightly different audiences, demographics and usage patterns. And the same reason that some things like Path just don't.

I don't have any direct evidence, but I think this is one reason Facebook Messenger is being pushed as an independent app. One Hacker Way is a big ol' Hunger Games of messaging right now. Instagram, Whatsapp, Messenger and whomever else they buy are all slugging it out to build the biggest platform they can-- or prevent anyone outside the walls from doing so. Perhaps they can all be nation states that co-exist in perpetuity. Perhaps not. All we know about the inner-workings of Facebook is that it could change dramatically tomorrow. But right now, they are all on going parallel experiments that are ultimately competing to be the thing we open the most everyday when we are waiting in line, killing time, or want to shout out a video, photo or emoji to a pal.

And this blunder aside, it's a brilliant strategy in an age where Amazon and others are trying to be all things to consumers in one spot and under one brand. For better or for worse, "Move Fast and Break Things" is as embedded in Facebook's DNA as a fundamental lack of understanding what will piss off its users. At least now if one messaging app blunders, there are at least two others who haven't.