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Interview: Facebook Messenger boss says 1-to-1 communication trumps every other form

Updated Dec 2nd, 2018 9:29AM EST
Facebook Messenger app
Image: Valentin Wolf / imageBROKER/Shutterstock

On a call with analysts in October, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg laid out the future of his giant social networking empire, pointing to its efforts around video, messaging and the ephemeral “Story” format within messaging as the keys to the company’s future. Indeed, Facebook has been significantly ramping up its investments in those areas, having spun off Messenger and rolled out a more stripped-down version of the app.

“Stories” within Instagram, Facebook and Messenger offer yet another revenue-driver for the company now that ads are slowly being inserted between those stories. And the company is commissioning premium video content to build up its nascent Facebook Watch YouTube rival. Facebook’s vice president in charge of its standalone Messenger app, meanwhile, is pretty straightforward when you talk to him about communication between people these days, how people are changing up their social media usage and why Messenger arguably points the way forward for the beleaguered, sprawling social giant.

Says Stan Chudnovsky, Facebook’s Messenger boss, there’s a simple reason the app now boasts some 1.3 billion monthly users who are sending billions of messages each month between each other as well as to businesses on Facebook.

One-to-one communication, Chudnovsky told BGR in an interview, “trumps everything.”

By everything, he means every other form of communication — between you and a small group, you and a large group, and you broadcasting across a public medium. A public medium like a feed, similar to the one Facebook has which arguably no longer enjoys the cachet it once had certainly among brands whose reach has been diminished. Ordinary users, meanwhile, are flocking to apps that let them share in more personal ways, like Facebook-owned Instagram.

Chudnovsky spoke with us about the recently rolled-out redesign of Messenger, which stripped away and de-emphasized some elements that were starting to make the app feel cluttered and potentially affecting the frequency of usage. It was important to do that, he explains, because people increasingly prefer this kind of outlet as their primary form of communication — not so much a feed anymore, where you blast something out to a crowd.

“One-to-one private sharing trumps everything,” he said. “If you think about it, forget about the Internet. Think about us as humans. That’s actually a basic human need. That stayed with us for as long we’ve existed as humans. Stories like Robinson Crusoe are wonderful, but you know they’re not true because any psychologist will tell you a person on their own on an uninhabited island will go crazy in about six months. If you’re very strong, maybe eight.

“You have to have other humans to interact with, or you stop being human. So, one-to-one conversation is a very basic need we cannot survive without.”

From there, he continues, you can start to think about other forms of communication as plotted within concentric circles.

“From there, there’s one-to-small group communication,” he says. “It’s a strong need. I need it. But I can kind of survive without it. I would like to talk in groups of two, three, four or five from time to time. That’s better, but I don’t need to have it every day in order to be human.

“And then from there, you can go into larger groups, like communities. Like, people like to go to church once a week. People like to congregate in large groups, but it’s not a need that needs to be with you every day. And from there you go into public broadcast, which is something people want to communicate to large audiences. To some people who they don’t even know. This is also something very nice to have but it’s not something that’s must-have or that people need to do with frequency.”

Internally, Facebook’s numbers show that the larger a person’s audience gets, the smaller the percentage of things they’re willing to share with them also gets. That’s according to Chudnovsky, who adds that he doesn’t even really see this as a change or an evolution so much as a “shifting back to the basics” in terms of original human communication.

It’s an interesting point, for sure, especially given that his employer’s most familiar and powerful feature for so long was its ubiquitous News Feed that came to represent the entry point for many people’s Facebook experiences. Slowly, however, a decentralization of the Facebook experience began to occur, such that you might head over to Instagram to post fun stories for your friends that eventually disappear and communicate with them over time in Messenger as a replacement for texting.

Facebook doesn’t disclose numbers around that last part, but Chudnovsky says a “significant number of people out there” are using Messenger as their primary messaging app. “And that number is growing, we’re quite pleased with that.”

The next evolution of the app, of course, has to do with advertising, which is slowly starting to be introduced. A Facebook spokesman told us today the chats themselves will be considered sacrosanct — you won’t see ads there. They’ll instead be confined to the inbox, as well as in-between Messenger stories.

Facebook’s early testing around user comfort with ads, and businesses’ willingness to buy up ad inventory, are all positive, the company says. In terms of a few related numbers: at this point, Facebook says it has 10 billion messages flowing between people and businesses every month.

“The beauty there is not the number,” Chudnovsky says. “The number is great, but the important thing is the trend.” Two years ago, he continues, they had nothing. And then about a year ago, some two billion messages, which slowly grew to four billion, then six billion and now 10.

So it’s growing, from the standpoint of people talking to business. “And businesses are dying to buy the (ad) inventory, because it’s another way for them to be where people are,” he says. “If you take a historical perspective, when newspapers came out, and people were reading them, obviously businesses needed to be where people are so they started advertising in newspapers, and the same thing happened with radio, TV and the same thing is happening on messaging.

“Theoretically, I feel like businesses, us, and people using us are very aligned. The question is how long will it take us to find all the right formats to present (ads) in such a way that people actually find a real value in it. We’re continuing to experiment with all that, but the initial signals are very positive.”

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.

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