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Why Messenger is Facebook’s key to the future of communication

Stan Chudnovsky joins the Source Code podcast to talk about Messenger, protocols, platforms, audio, privacy and more.

Why Messenger is Facebook’s key to the future of communication

If the future of Facebook really is private, it'll be in large part because of the work done by Stan Chudnovsky and his team.

Photo: Facebook

Stan Chudnovsky used to run a messaging app. A very popular one, Facebook Messenger, with more than a billion users. But now he runs something even bigger: the central nervous system of all Facebook communication. (And still an app, to be fair.) As the company tries to make WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Oculus, Portal and the rest of its products more interoperable, Messenger has become the Rosetta Stone for the whole project.

It's made for a busy couple of years for Chudnovsky, who is also working on how to protect users' privacy even as he tries to build more features and more tools on top of Messenger. If the future of Facebook really is private, as Mark Zuckerberg likes to say, it'll be in large part because of the work done by Chudnovsky and his team.

Chudnovsky joined the Source Code podcast to talk about the ongoing integration plan, the future of Messenger both as an app and as a protocol, the tension between features and privacy, and what it'll take for Messenger — or any other app — to become a super app on par with WeChat.

You can listen to our full conversation on this episode of the Source Code podcast. Below are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

We're having this big debate as a tech industry about platforms versus protocols. And it feels like Messenger is sort of becoming a protocol for all things Facebook. Whether you're on Portal, or Oculus, or WhatsApp, or Instagram, that Messenger is less of an app that you download, and more of a system of communications. Has it changed how you think about Messenger, as you've spread into all of these other different places across Facebook?

That happened by intention, right? We do want to sit in the middle and enabled a bunch of things that are happening between different apps and between different things. We are a protocol that will allow people to communicate to each other. It's sort of a communication protocol that is built around people, not around bytes, or around apps or around anything else. It's just like, hey, I want to talk to this person, then I can find the person. If I have the number of the person, I can find them. If I have the name of the person, I can send a message. If I want to send that message from Facebook to someone on WhatsApp, I will be able to do that. If I want to do that from Instagram, I will be able to do that.

The protocol to enable that is definitely something that we are focusing on. So we are becoming embedded in all other aspects of the company. If you want to make a call in Portal, then it's probably going to go over Messenger, and you're going to reach me on my iPhone or on my Android, wherever I am, and you're going to be on the Portal device that is sitting in your home and that we're going to have a wonderful, lovely conversation. We can add other people who are right now on Instagram, for example, into that conversation and bring it all together.

So of course it is a bunch of protocol work to allow and enable all of that. But then, on top of the protocol and the platform that we need to run and plug into different parts of the company, there is an app. And that app needs to work for people who want to use this app. And that app is something that a lot of people prefer, and they want to continue to use it. So the way I think about it is that we started as an app, but then we expanded into being both. So now we're an app and a protocol, and we're spending obviously a lot of time on the protocol.

What made that change? At what point did it become obvious that Messenger needed to spread like that?

A lot of it was organic, because we will start building additional functionality in different apps. For example, Facebook Dating: What are you going to build Facebook Dating on? You build it on the components that already exist, which is Messenger. Or you would say, "Hey, people on Marketplace need to communicate with each other." So what do you build it on? What you build it on is Messenger, because we already have that, we already enable it. And it's not a trivial thing to build to that level of complexity. When you want to do calls between people who are on Instagram, what do you build it on?

Slowly, but surely, it just organically started to appear. And then it was obvious which way the world is going, and we're like, OK, so we need to enable that. Genuinely, I'm a big fan of that type of plans versus anything else. When you're constantly on the lookout for what are the things that are dynamically starting to happen? And then you're like, ooh, this is cool. We need to empower that. We need to invest a lot in that, we need to put in on steroids. That's what you do.

It's such interesting timing because I think we've reached a point where it's clear that protocols are the right answer, and that we need some new ones. Like, email keeps being great because it's open and accessible to everybody, and you can build lots of experiences on top of it. But email as a fundamental technology is awful. And the same is true with SMS. And so I get the sense that everyone has come to this idea that we need something better. And then you talk to folks who are like, "The answer is the blockchain! And we're going to do all of this in a totally decentralized way!" Who knows if that's the answer, but it's definitely not the answer next week or next year.

Is there a world in which this goes outside of Facebook and Messenger becomes an open, for lack of a better term, protocol for how communication works in lots of other places? Are your aspirations that big?

Well, we'll see what time brings us. Right now we have our hands very busy with just enabling what we need to enable.

Now, if you ask me, can I imagine a future where there is some sort of an open widget that any game, for example, can embed into itself? And then all of a sudden, that enables the chat capabilities with different levels of identities that connects you to billions of people around the world should you want to do that? Then the answer is, why not? Why wouldn't that be possible?

I definitely think that if you're building a protocol, you have to think about the ways of making the protocol available for the developers outside. If you don't think about that, then you're not really building a protocol. Now, at what point you open it, whether you open it all, is a completely different set of decisions that you can arrive at given the circumstances once you're ready to make those determinations. But unless you start thinking about it this way from the very beginning, then you'll just lose optionality, which is a stupid way of doing things.

With Messenger the app, as opposed to Messenger the protocol, one comparison I've always thought was really interesting is WeChat. There's been this question for years: What's going to be WeChat outside of China? Everybody talks about super apps and this question of how much of people's lives can they live inside of these messaging apps. What's your sense of, A) why the WeChat model hasn't really worked outside of China, and B) how much Messenger's aspirations match toward that?

The reason why messaging apps are so popular and continue to grow, and more and more people are spending more and more time on them, is just because communicating with other people one-on-one is a basic human need that has been with us for the last few thousand years, and is going to be with us for like however long we have as a species. Then there is small-group communication, four or five friends or so forth. And then from there, you go to one-to-many, when there is a sort of community type of thing, like churches and rotary clubs and all of that stuff. You almost can imagine the world of communication in those concentric circles: a small core, and then it grows from there.

What happened in China is that that's exactly how they developed everything. Because people didn't have social networks, people didn't get news in multiple ways, people didn't have shopping, people didn't have payments, people didn't have any of that. And then all of a sudden, they got an iPhone, or they got their Android phone, or whatever phone they got. They needed to get the app to communicate with other people, because that's what they need. Then they looked at that and they're like, "Oh, wait a second. We can do more than just communicate one on one, we can communicate with groups." Boom, it's there. "OK, so now we can create bigger communities."

It's way more natural for it to grow when you're starting from the center and going this way. And then, of course, payments and ecommerce and other stuff — you continue to build on top of that, because everything else is already there. And it just made sense, because people just sort of like expanded their knowledge of the internet. And all of that was all on mobile.

Here, it's slightly different, because that's not how the whole world developed. PayPal existed for years, they knew how to send a payment. It's not like they're like, "Oh my God, I don't have a social network," because Facebook and Instagram were already there. Existing habits were engraved into how society operated, versus how it was in China where the whole thing just naturally grew from the center in a very organic way.

That's true of so much of tech right now, right? We've talked about this even with voice assistants and stuff, which are objectively better at a lot of things. But they're fighting against the way that we've always done things.

Users' engraved habits have been reinforced by everyday use. Whatever you're offering as a replacement needs to be five times better in order for you to even get into consideration, because what you have works, so it needs to be considerably better.

And so then the question is, at which point do those experiences, that are being accumulated and then aggregated on top of messaging, actually get to the point when it's so much considerably better that it requires a reconsideration? And my simple answer there is that we just haven't gotten there yet. But "yet" is a key word, because clearly the world is going this way.

I want to talk about the encryption and privacy side of all this. I think we are getting increasingly good at talking about what we want out of public platforms. It's a mess, and everybody still disagrees, but we're sort of getting better at having that conversation. On private, even semi-private internet platforms, it feels like we have yet to decide how these spaces should be regulated. And I was reading an interview with you where you were saying that your basic thesis is that in private conversations, people should be essentially allowed to do what they want. Is that a fair characterization of your views on that? That if you and I are talking in Messenger, that it is not Facebook's place to get in the way of that in any sort of meaningful, moderation kind of way?

Oh, definitely not Facebook's place to be between me and you if we're talking together. But my point was broader: Is it anyone else's business to be in the way? Because we're trying to replicate real life. Real life is that if you and I go into a room together in my house, or in your house, I hope no one's listening, and I hope we can do whatever we want. And that's a basic assumption. And that's how we should be thinking about it,

I think to enable that paradigm to continue to exist is almost like a moral imperative. I should be able to say whatever I want to tell you, and you should be able to tell me whatever you want to tell me, and I think it should stay between us if we so desire. Again, you can say something and I can say, "Oh, I really don't like what David told me, so I'm gonna go to the police and report on him." That's fine. That's your right as well. But short of that, it should stay between us.

I think it's something that's easy to lose in the midst of the internet revolution. And I think it's going to be another couple of years for us to be sorry that we lost it. And I want to try to make sure that we don't.

The first frontier of how to make sure that doesn't happen is just to make sure that people's private conversations are staying private. It's not that much. It's what we all had for a long time.

How is that project going, by the way? Doing end-to-end encryption is not an easy thing.

It's a very high priority for us. It's going well. We do have pieces of it in place, like we have secret conversations, which is end-to-end encrypted conversations built on the Signal protocol. So you already can have encrypted end-to-end conversations on Messenger. With regards to flipping it into encryption by default, it's not going to happen this year. But we're working hard to make it happen as soon as possible. So there is a lot of hope for the next year.

What did you take away from the whole sort of WhatsApp privacy policy dust-up?

I think we could have been clearer when we were talking about what is actually going to happen, which is that people-to-people conversation is always gonna have to be private and end-to-end encrypted. But when you're talking to businesses, you obviously want businesses to have more than one person who is capable of helping you. And so, to enable that, there are certain steps that we're going to take to build certain tools that will allow a business to have more than one person to communicate with you. And that's what the privacy change was all about.

But it didn't come through as clearly as it could have. And so people had questions, which I think we're answering right now. And now it's going well. Clarity is important when you are dealing with people's privacy.

One of the things that I took away from that whole thing was people assume that when they're talking to someone else, no one else is listening. They haven't read the privacy policy, they don't even think about it, they just assume that if you and I are texting, nobody can see it or read it or do anything about it. And the extent to which that's not true even with things like SMS would blow a lot of people's minds.

But it's interesting that that's the assumption, right? And I think that's where it maps to the real-world thing. If you and I are in a room, we have a reasonable expectation that no one is paying attention, and that does translate to the digital world I think in a bigger way than people realize. And so any inkling that that's not the case just freaks people out.

You're exactly right. If we are in a room, you and I, and we are having a conversation, and there is a guy in the corner with a newspaper, you don't know whether he's listening or not, but definitely the fact that he's in the corner of the room will change the nature of our conversation. If he wasn't there with a newspaper, we probably would be talking differently.

And I think that's it. If you don't see the guy, then you have a very different conversation. So for you to learn that there was a guy with a newspaper, your head is about to explode. And we don't want people's heads to explode. And we want to make sure that there is certainty that no one that you know that no one can actually be able, including us, to see what's going on.

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