Facebook is the world’s largest social media network, and aside from the Facebook platform, it controls some of the leading internet communication apps — WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger.
The company is facing increasing regulatory scrutiny over how it manages user data — particularly in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which the personal data of millions of users have been harvested by a third party without their knowledge and consent.
Last week, founder Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook will focus more on enhancing the privacy of users’ personal information and communications, and will upgrade all of its communications platforms by providing end-to-end encryption and interconnecting the apps under its stable.
All these plans indicate that Facebook is moving away from being a largely social media platform and transforming itself into an online communications tool.
Facebook is now a major source of information and news for many people around the world, its Newsfeed replacing much of the role that used to be played by newspapers, radio stations and television channels.
This has resulted in the service being abused by unscrupulous individuals and groups who use it to provide wrong or misleading information to advance their vested interests.
While trying to provide a channel for connecting friends and loved ones, Facebook also finds itself being used as a platform to promote extremist ideas. One of the saddest examples of this was last week’s terrorist attack on two New Zealand mosques, in which a gunman used Facebook’s live-stream function while on a murderous spree.
Zuckerberg announced his plan to make Facebook a “living room” for its users rather than a “town square” in an effort to address the network’s privacy issues. To achieve this goal, Facebook has decided to integrate the messaging services of WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram.
The new messaging service will be built with privacy in mind. Thus, the focus is on end-to-end encryption and ephemerality, i.e., messages will be automatically deleted after a certain period of time, Zuckerberg said.
With such an objective, Facebook is transforming itself into a platform that is focused on messaging service. In effect, it could turn into a WeChat-like app outside of China.
WeChat, owned by Chinese technology giant Tencent Holdings (00700.HK), is China’s largest mobile application with about a billion subscribers, who use it for chatting, playing games, and as a payment platform and an information source.
What Zuckerberg wants to do with his Facebook is more or less the same as Tencent has been doing with WeChat over the years, transforming its desktop QQ instant messaging app into mobile-based communication platform.
As such, Facebook may be able to learn some valuable lessons from WeChat with regard to the migration process from one platform to another.
Facebook can allow users to use a single account to link their messaging apps in order to simplify administrative procedures. That should be the first thing Facebook should focus on to avoid the leakage of users’ personal information and behavioral data.
Shifting to a messaging platform doesn’t mean Facebook will no longer perform its Newsfeed function, but it would now be in a different form. In WeChat, there are hundreds of millions of public accounts developed by a wide range of companies from restaurants and retailers to news organizations and game developers.
Users can subscribe to their public accounts to receive information regularly on WeChat. In this case, there is no need to establish a specialized algorithm to predict what information users would want to read. The users themselves will control what information they can read through subscription.
Newsfeed would no longer be the network’s key feature as it would be consolidated into the users’ contact list as what happens in WeChat.
Stepping back from Newsfeed would represent a big pivot for Facebook, considering that most of its advertising revenue is generated by this function.
But as Zuckerberg focuses on privacy, using user information to drive advertising dollars should give way to a peer-to-peer model. Users, of course, can opt in or out of any peer-to-peer promotion from Facebook advertisers. The advertisers could appear as a banner in the dialogue box for chatting, or even send messages to users through their public accounts.
Another very attractive and sustainable business model that Facebook can adopt from WeChat is the latter’s mobile wallet. With its wide user base, Facebook can easily emerge as a winner in the field.
The advantage of Facebook’s messaging platform is that users can send money directly within the chat dialogue box with just few clicks, without the need to open a separate mobile wallet and key in the receiver’s mobile number to complete the transfer.
In fact, Facebook plans to use a digital currency to focus on small payments in India via its WhatsApp platform. This feature could help Facebook to monetize its service if it could connect its system with several e-commerce platforms.
Facebook must have realized that it could not stop at being a social media network, and as a technology giant, it must find new ways to transform itself for the benefit of its shareholders and users.