Summer reissue: The messaging app is ubiquitous even among people who go out of their way not to use Facebook. But with Meta signalling that Messenger may be folded back into Facebook proper, where will everyone go? Shanti Mathias explores in the final instalment of a series about how we use Facebook today.
First published on July 26, 2023.
When I was 14 I had to have a Facebook account. I needed it to post pictures I’d taken on my digital camera, of the school dance and a camel I saw. I needed it to see which other people my friends were friends with. I needed it so I could spend an afternoon leaning over my sister’s shoulder by the family computer in the living room, convincing her to tell her crush that he was “skux”. I liked the weird power trip in responding to friend requests: delineating who counted as a friend and was therefore worthy of things like the artsy photo of my eyes with the colours enhanced on picmonkey.com which had taken me an entire afternoon. When I started a blog, I would post links to the things I wrote on Facebook, convinced that my friends would want to read them. Sometimes they did.
All of this dates me, of course; the way that Facebook enmeshed with my life as a teenager, the time I spent thinking about it was not because I was particularly internet-obsessed or popular. Instead, regular use of Facebook seemed normal; it was what everyone around me was doing.
I’ve spent the past two months trying to figure out what Facebook means now; all those semi-active accounts as the parent company has pivoted to the metaverse, then to AI. From the headlines in business publications, Facebook might seem to be forgotten. Certainly my younger siblings and cousins aren’t coming home from school to log into the shared computer to see what is happening on Facebook. They’re scrolling Instagram, maybe; absorbed by YouTube and TikTok, certainly. Meanwhile, Facebook itself plods on. It’s still there. It still has millions of users, around three million in this country.
And the reason those users haven’t all fled to new platforms is that despite the privacy controversies, despite the company’s wholesale determination to eliminate news from its business, despite the misinformation, despite Cambridge Analytica, despite the newsfeed increasingly stuffed with ads, Facebook is still useful. For some people, there’s the thrill of a good deal snapped up on Facebook Marketplace. For others, there’s the fact that it’s still one of the easiest ways to invite real people to your event. For others, there’s the camaraderie of Facebook groups – people who you don’t need to know in real life to share interests or hobbies.
And then there’s Messenger. I tell myself I could give Facebook up – I could abandon the newsfeed, the cringe photos of my teenage self, the abundant deals of Marketplace, the weird groups I’ve discovered focused on map projections and the slim possibility of being invited to events – but then I think of Messenger. After a few years of living room Facebook sessions, I finally got a smartphone. I never downloaded the Facebook app on it, but I immediately got Messenger, which was separated from Facebook in 2014. Those days might be ending. In March, Meta said that there were plans underway to integrate Facebook and Messenger again. “We’ll build more ways to integrate messaging features in Facebook over the coming year,” head of Meta NZ, Spencer Bailey, confirmed to The Spinoff.
A brief history of Facebook Messenger
When I first downloaded Messenger, I wasn’t thinking about the history of the product as a way to make people more dependent on the Facebook platform. But Facebook’s executives – there has been a separate role for “head of Messenger” since at least 2015 – were. While Facebook has had messaging as part of its product since 2008, Messenger was created to “reduce the friction of messaging,” said Mark Zuckerberg in a Verge interview at the time. It did so by making it impossible to read Facebook messages on mobile without the app. Quickly growing to billions of users, the Messenger app was largely considered a great success as its parent company (then called Facebook, now called Meta) wanted messaging to become an all-encompassing platform.
Some of that ambition has become obvious in the years since. Messenger has billions of users, yes. It also has a “stories” function, Marketplace connectivity, community group chats with members of Facebook groups you’re in, the ability to message businesses, photo filters, emoji reactions and much more. While WhatsApp, also owned by Meta, offers most of the same functionality, WhatsApp is largely an app that relies on you knowing people’s phone numbers. In a similar way, Instagram messaging may require you to know someone’s handle, since not everyone lists their name on their profile. But with Messenger, all you need to know is their name. It’s monetised, too: there are advertisements nestled among your messages to your friends.
There’s so much functionality that Facebook had a “Messenger Lite” app for several years – all Messenger and none of the mess – for people who had phones with less processing power and smaller data plans. There’s also a Messenger Kids app with parental controls.
The difficulty of disconnecting
“Facebook has a powerful role in constructing intimacy,” says Alex Beattie, a researcher at Victoria University of Wellington who has researched what disconnecting means in a digital world. Ten years ago, Beattie deleted his Facebook account, but he downloaded an archive of all his data first, including some of the first messages he had exchanged with his partner. “That valuable information disincentivises you from disconnecting,” he explains. As you scroll through Facebook messages, for instance, you’re able to see the people who you contact regularly at the top, along with the most recent message you sent them, a reminder of who you are most close to.
The personal connections with people you know well over messaging apps are a big part of the appeal of social platforms more broadly, Beattie says. In a recent study about how a nationally representative sample of people feel about the internet, he found that younger people felt that they should “stay online for their friends,” even when they didn’t want to post on social media themselves. Most people spend most of their time messaging online with people they know in real life; the digital messages are just an extension of the connection.
“I use Messenger every day; I would say it’s my primary form of communication with other people,” says Hassaan Mirza, a professional who works in Auckland. He estimates that at least 65% of his communication takes place on Facebook Messenger, which he has had since 2016 when he was a high school student. For many of the people he messages on Facebook, he doesn’t have another way to contact them – an email, a phone number, or a street address. “It makes me feel like it’s so easy for us to accept the potential infiltration of technology into our lives if it’s convenient,” he says. The immediacy of connection, the ability to send photos and videos and make calls and the long history of data already on the platform makes it hard to leave.
Like Mirza, I open Messenger all the time. There are close friends whose number I still don’t have because when we met, we messaged on Facebook, and haven’t stopped since. I feel a sick churn of discomfort when I think of the thousands, maybe millions, of words I’ve exchanged with my boyfriend on Messenger, years of links and sweet goodnight texts and complaints about flatmates. All on someone else’s platform; all for some corporation to make money from – from all the people I talk to and love.
“Not having Facebook [now] is like not having a phonebook [40 years ago],” Beattie says. Being able to look people up if you know their names, and checking on a picture that they’ve posted to verify it, is extremely useful (especially if, say, you’re a journalist). For people with a long history of Facebook messages, the photos and videos and links are a useful archive, one threaded with emotion and memory – and that makes it all the more difficult to quit, he says. All that data about your interests and relationships is valuable to Facebook, he says. “But it’s also valuable to you.”
Beattie points out that if it is the appeal of social connections that convince people to make and keep their accounts, the expectation of connection is not experienced equally. Younger people, accustomed to being constantly digitally available find disconnection particularly difficult, Beattie’s research has found. “There’s that fear of missing out,” he says. Women, too, are often expected to maintain connections with family to an extent that men are not, making it harder to leave Messenger, even if you don’t want to use Facebook for other purposes.
It’s not just me and Mirza using Facebook Messenger – we’re there because our friends are there. In a statement to The Spinoff, Meta said that over 140 billion messages are sent across their apps (including WhatsApp and Instagram Messenger) every day.
The promise of instant communication
“Messenger is very easy to use, it’s so amazing,” says Paddy Baldwin, a grandmother who lives in a retirement village in Auckland. Baldwin’s grandson is currently travelling overseas, and she’s been amazed at how quickly she’s been able to get messages through, with him even sending a voice message for her husband’s birthday. “It feels absolutely wonderful to get to hear from him,” she says. “I don’t know what his phone number is while he’s away but I can hear from him on Messenger.”
She compares the experience to communicating with her son when he lived in London 25 years ago. “One time, I hadn’t heard from [my son] for three weeks, he could have been anywhere,” she says. With Facebook Messenger, her grandson in Taiwan is only a tap away.
Baldwin only has a Facebook account to use Messenger. She never opens the newsfeed, because she doesn’t like that her interactions with people on the main Facebook app are visible to all and sundry. When I call her, she’s particularly perturbed about social media, having received a message from someone with the name of an old friend a day earlier. “I said hello and got a weird reply back, and she didn’t remember me, I started to wonder if she was becoming forgetful,” she recounts. “Then she sent me a link for me to get some money and I told her I didn’t need any money.” After a while, Baldwin figuered out it was a scam – luckily before she’d entered any of her personal details. “It was scary,” she says. “And it came through Facebook, it made me feel like it’s hard to trust.”
Scams on Messenger are so ubiquitous that the company itself has a help page dedicated to common scams, advising that users not click suspicious links or respond to connections saying they are in an emergency – even if the platform is so widely used that it may be the first port of call for people really wanting to get in touch with someone after an emergency. Of course, all widely used communication networks, including landlines and the postal system, have had the same issue; it’s just that the betrayal of trust seems particularly insidious, as Baldwin found, when it’s coming from a person you think you know.
Despite his near-daily use of Messenger, Mirza thinks that he would like to eventually quit the app, especially if using it required having to log into Facebook proper. “I believe that face-to-face comms are the best,” he says. “I don’t think the immediacy of [Messenger] is always good for me.”
In the meantime, two of the most obvious alternatives to Messenger are also owned by Meta: WhatsApp and Instagram. “Once you’ve experienced sending photos and videos instantly, it enriches your conversation and there’s a sense of loss when you can’t any more,” Beattie says. Text messaging is also nearly instantaneous, but more inconvenient for sending pictures and videos and, as mentioned, requires that you already know someone’s number when you contact them. There’s a place for independent encrypted services like Signal (whose CEO is currently doing a big media push), but only large corporations have achieved the scale needed for a messaging service. iMessage is an alternative, too, but only if every single one of your friends and connections are locked into Apple products, ostracising any Android users for the green bubble effect. “These giants are dominating – people don’t want to join a place that no-one else is using,” Beattie says.
I’m struck particularly by what Mirza says, that the convenience of Messenger is the reason it has persisted, even for those who haven’t browsed an album of digital camera photos on the Facebook newsfeed or been “poked” by their friends for years. I imagine the ways that Facebook is useful to me and conclude that it isn’t very. I tell myself that I’d have the gumption to quit, abandon the people who weren’t important enough for me to know how else to contact them. I’d download an archive of all my data for my grandchildren to cherish, just like I love rediscovering letters my mother wrote when she was in her early twenties. Then I’d move on – probably, if I’m being honest, to WhatsApp. You can get away from Facebook, but you can’t escape Meta.