Facebook Inc. chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has laid out a vision for transforming the world’s largest social-media network into a platform centred on private messaging. The plan marks the most significant change to Facebook since the company shifted from desktop to mobile eight years ago and comes after string of privacy scandals have placed the Silicon Valley giant in the crosshairs of global regulators.
Mr. Zuckerberg told an annual developer’s conference in San Jose, Calif., Tuesday that Facebook was redesigning many of its services to become a “private social platform.” That includes a new version of its core Facebook app, launched for smartphones on Tuesday, that focuses on images over text and gives more prominence to friends and groups that users have joined.
The social-media firm is also rebuilding its Messenger app to make the private messaging service faster, more secure and more interactive, he said. And Mr. Zuckerberg said the company was planning to expand tests of a payments system for WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging service that is popular outside of North America and Europe.
The aim is to move more conversations and business transactions into private messages and away from publicly visible services such as Facebook and Instagram. Those apps have been at the centre of a string of scandals involving privacy abuses and the spread of misinformation, hate speech and foreign election interference online.
“I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly,” Mr. Zuckerberg told the crowd of employees, developers and journalists in front of a giant screen that read The Future is Private. “But I’m committed to doing this well and to starting a new chapter for our products.”
Mr. Zuckerberg first announced his intention to refocus Facebook in a blog post March 6, where he said he envisioned the social-media firm developing along on two parallel tracks: improving the public town-square style services that have long dominated the company’s core products and expanding more private messaging services that could become the digital equivalent of a living room.
The changes come little more than a year after the social-media giant found itself under fire for allowing consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to improperly access the personal information of millions of Facebook users for use in political campaigns.
Those revelations, along with several other privacy breaches over the past year, sparked a backlash among consumers and global lawmakers. Last week, Facebook said it expects to face a fine of up to US$5-billion from the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. consumer watchdog, over privacy abuses. Canada’s Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien announced last week that he was taking Facebook to Federal Court to force it to change its privacy practices, and pressed Ottawa to give his office greater enforcement powers.
Mr. Zuckerberg said Tuesday that Facebook was “replumbing the whole infrastructure” of the company to make it more centred on privacy, a process that’s expected to take several years.
The most immediate and visible difference will be the company’s redesign of its core Facebook app, which is changing colour from blue to white and shifting more emphasis toward conversations and content from groups. Facebook also plans to expand a dating service on the core app, which has been available in Canada since November, and launch a service to help people meet new friends.
Some of the most significant changes are set to come to Messenger, a private messaging app popular in the United States and Canada. Messenger users will be able to see posts from across Facebook and Instagram, watch videos and book services at businesses within the app. Messenger will eventually be encrypted so that users won’t have “to worry about hackers, governments or even us being able to see what you’re saying,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.
Facebook also said it plans to crack down on bullying and peer pressure on Instagram, its photo-sharing app. It is studying features such as hiding the number of likes a post receives and alerting users when they post harassing messages on the platform.
Even as Mr. Zuckerberg said he was focused on private services, he offered no updates to previously announced privacy features on Tuesday, including a plan revealed last year to eventually allow users to be able to clear their search histories on Facebook. And Facebook executives also discussed plans to give businesses a broader array of tools to target users through their private messaging apps.
The company faces challenges in banking its future on private messaging. While Facebook may be the world’s largest social-media platform with more than two billion daily users, it faces stiff global competition when it comes to messaging apps.
Mr. Zuckerberg told investors last week that Facebook is not the most popular private communications service in the United States or Japan, two of the company’s largest markets. Apple’s iPhone iMessenger is popular in the United States, while Korean messaging app Line is used widely in Japan. Facebook is eyeing the success of WeChat in particular, which has one billion users in China. The app allows users to shop, make a doctor’s appointment, pay bills and book flights within its app.
“In some countries, more people have a WhatsApp account than a bank account,” said Ami Vora, vice-president of product marketing at WhatsApp. “What if we could make sending money as simple as sending a message?”
Facebook also has yet to make much money from its private messaging apps. Nearly all of its revenue comes from advertising that targets consumers on Facebook and Instagram, mainly through public news feeds. Executives said last week that Facebook was still in the “very early” stages of making money from Messenger and was not earning any ad revenue from WhatsApp.
Mr. Zuckerberg also warned investors that the company was focused more on building out its private messaging services in the near future than monetizing them.
He also acknowledged the risks involved in moving more conversations outside of public view. The company plans to tweak algorithms to make groups that spread misinformation less prominent. Mr. Zuckerberg also said he would take at least a year to consult with experts and governments on plans to encrypt private messaging services, which would prevent even Facebook from being able to see what is shared among users.
“There are real trade-offs between making your messages and private communications as secure as possible on the one hand and our ability to prevent people from doing bad things on the other hand,” he said.