In January 2019, Facebook announced that it intended to merge the messaging capability of its holy trinity of messaging apps: Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Users of these apps will be able to send messages to any of the other apps without the need for both users to be on the same platform. This integration marks a departure from previous promises that Instagram and WhatsApp would remain independent.
Facebook's messaging apps are used by a huge proportion of consumers. According to Ovum's OTT Communications Tracker, if there were no overlap of users between the three apps, 54% of the global population would be using one of Facebook's messaging apps to communicate. Of course, there is overlap between the user bases, but with even Instagram having a user base which makes up 14% of the global population the message stands: this merger means that a significant proportion of the world's population will be using just one messaging platform. This will mean that the only mobile messaging service which will connect more people will be the humble SMS.
Figure 1: Facebook's billions of messaging users
In Ovum's opinion, the merger of the messaging feature on Facebook's messaging apps will achieve two key goals:
Reduce overheads. Just like publishers making sure all their titles are sharing the same back-end system rather than using different products, investing in just one back end for the three messaging products will save maintenance and running costs.
Greater visibility of combined user data from across the three apps. Advertisers use an ever-increasing amount of data, and while Facebook does not directly sell data to advertisers right now, the more data Facebook has, the more accurately it can profile its users for the purposes of selling ads. Facebook's value to advertisers lies in advertisers being able to access as specific an audience as they want. Essentially, more data equals more money.
It is also likely that Facebook sees the merger as an opportunity to share more data between the parent company and its messaging platforms, without data protection regulators being able to prevent it. Without a doubt, data protection commissioners across Europe started preparing for battle as soon as the news of the messaging merger broke, and will make sure that Facebook does not override consumer data protection rights. But it certainly wouldn't be the first time Facebook has gone forward with a product change which has attracted the ire of data protection regulators.
The enabling of end-to-end encryption on all three of Facebook's apps also sets out the company's stall with regards to cooperation with law enforcement. Facebook will not be able to decrypt messages, even with a court order – but of course it does not stop Facebook from inserting secret group chat participants in the digital equivalent of a crocodile clip circuit.
The planned merger will not take place immediately – it is anticipated that the back-end integration will take until early 2020 to complete – but with billions of users it will make a huge impact on the way we communicate.
Social Media Tracker: 1H18, CES001-000031 (November 2018)
OTT Communications Case Study: Facebook Messenger makes play for platform domination, CES001-000019 (July 2019)
Charlotte Palfrey, Senior Analyst, Communications and Social