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Mark Zuckerberg believes Facebook’s future is private messaging

“I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms,” Zuckerberg wrote Wednesday.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg onstage gesturing at a picture of a lock.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

It’s been clear for years that Facebook values private messaging: It paid $19 billion for WhatsApp back in 2014, and its other standalone messaging service, Messenger, has more than 1.3 billion users.

But CEO Mark Zuckerberg made clear on Wednesday, March 6, that private messaging isn’t just important to Facebook’s future. It is Facebook’s future.

In a lengthy post from Zuckerberg, titled “A privacy-focused vision for social networking,” he outlined that private messaging will soon be the most popular way that people interact on Facebook products.

“As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms,” Zuckerberg wrote. “I expect future versions of Messenger and WhatsApp to become the main ways people communicate on the Facebook network.”

Let’s spell it out clearly: That’s an incredibly important acknowledgment, and a move away from what has made Facebook a massive, global powerhouse. It also comes at a time when Facebook is under investigation for issues related to its privacy practices, where user data was shared or stolen in ways Facebook and its users didn’t anticipate.

Facebook’s core social network is not centered around private messaging. Neither is Instagram. Both products are about broadcasting your life to friends and family, at times connecting with strangers and even brands.

Facebook’s entire business is built on user profiles that include lasting information — what you’re interested in, where you live, who your friends are. That’s important information for personalizing Facebook and for supporting Facebook’s highly targeted advertising business.

Now Zuckerberg plans to move away from that, at least eventually. In his post, he talked about why people like private networks and the intimacy they provide.

“People are more cautious of having a permanent record of what they’ve shared,” Zuckerberg wrote. “I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about.”

Facebook, of course, is not well known for its work around privacy. The company has a reputation for playing fast and loose with its users’ data and has been routinely criticized for it.

Zuckerberg admitted that his focus on private communication may strike some as ironic.

“I understand that many people don’t think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform — because frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we’ve historically focused on tools for more open sharing,” he wrote. “But we’ve repeatedly shown that we can evolve to build the services that people really want, including in private messaging and stories.”

No matter what you think about Facebook’s privacy record, the company is well positioned for this future. It owns WhatsApp, which has more than 1.5 billion monthly users and is already end-to-end encrypted. It also owns Messenger, which has 1.3 billion users as well, a number that hasn’t been publicly updated since 2017.

This also explains why Zuckerberg is suddenly thinking about connecting all of Facebook’s messaging services so that people can communicate between them. If he believes private messaging is the future, he’ll want to be sure all of Facebook’s products can work in concert.

But there’s a big challenge here, too. Not only does this run counter to Facebook’s decade-long approach to building products, but private messaging is not a mature business. Facebook paid a fortune for WhatsApp over four years ago and still makes virtually no money from it. Messenger has been selling ads for more than two years, but it still hasn’t become a core part of Facebook’s business.

Then there’s encryption, which Zuckerberg discussed at length in his post, and comes with its own set of challenges. End-to-end-encrypted messages aren’t viewable to Facebook. That’s great for user privacy, but creates other safety concerns. You may recall Apple’s fight with the government a few years back related to encrypted messages that were sent by the San Bernardino shooters. When tech companies can’t read messages, it also means they can’t stop bad actors from using their services.

It also makes it hard to stop the spread of so-called fake news, an issue WhatsApp has been dealing with globally, but especially in India.

Zuckerberg admitted encryption will lead to trade-offs. “Finding the right ways to protect both privacy and safety is something societies have historically grappled with,” he wrote. “On balance, I believe working towards implementing end-to-end encryption for all private communications is the right thing to do.”

Zuckerberg also admitted all of this will take time, years even. But he believes a push into messaging could be Facebook’s most important move yet.

“If we do this well, we can create platforms for private sharing that could be even more important to people than the platforms we’ve already built to help people share and connect more openly,” he wrote.

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