Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a rare one-on-one Q&A to Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times.
What’s most interesting about it is the way it shows Zuckerberg’s thinking evolving over time.
For most of us, Facebook has had only two phases: 1) The desktop phase, when college students looked at Facebook on their laptops and work computers. 2) The mobile phase, when Facebook first replicated the desktop experience on your phone and then streamlined it.
Now, the majority of people check Facebook on their phones more than on desktop. And Facebook gets more of its revenue from mobile than it does from desktop. We’re living in the “mobile age” and Facebook is dominating it: 20 per cent of people’s time spent with their phones is on Facebook, Zuckerberg tells the Times.
So it’s interesting to see Zuckerberg talk about the ways that Facebook doesn’t work on mobile, and what he’s doing about it.
Naturally — this is Zuckerberg, not your regular mortal — he’s thinking years ahead and has concluded that large chunks of Facebook aren’t going to continue to function very well on mobile. It’s not that the tech literally won’t function. Technology isn’t the issue. It’s the way people use their phones: People don’t want to use Facebook for everything, Zuckerberg says.
People like to use Instagram for photos, not Facebook. People like to use WhatsApp for messaging, not Facebook. People like to use Snapchat for anonymous messages, not Facebook. And there are a hundred other game, payment and organizational apps that people use instead of Facebook.
The phone itself — a small device with fiddly buttons that is great for brief interactions and lousy for longform engagement — may not be suited for Facebook, with its epically long friends lists, its never ending news feed, its decades-long photo galleries, and all the other bits and pieces you’ve added to it over the years.
That is at once a chilling and invigorating issue for Facebook. And Zuckerberg is on it.
So now, in the years to come, Zuckerberg is talking about breaking up, or breaking off, chunks of Facebook and having them sit as separate apps on your phone. We’ve seen that already with Paper, WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger. They’re all Facebook properties. But who really thinks about Facebook when they’re scrolling through their Instagram feed? And who really thinks much about Facebook if you use Paper to read the news?
Here’s Zuckerberg literally talking about slicing Facebook into bits, or at least restricting its size:
But I think on mobile, people want different things. Ease of access is so important. So is having the ability to control which things you get notifications for. And the real estate is so small. In mobile there’s a big premium on creating single-purpose first-class experiences.
So what we’re doing with Creative Labs is basically unbundling the big blue app.
… The other thing that is important context to keep in mind is that, to some extent, most of these new things that we’re doing aren’t going to move any needles in our business for a very long time. The main Facebook usage is so big. About 20 per cent of the time people spend on their phone is on Facebook. From that perspective, Messenger or Paper can do extremely well but they won’t move any needles.
Next there’s Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, Search — these are use cases that people use a lot, and they will probably be the next things that will become businesses at Facebook. But you want to fast-forward three years before that will actually be a meaningful thing.
In this scenario, Facebook — with its 1.2 billion-plus audience — becomes more of an app launch platform or portal, and not an end-destination. We recently criticised Facebook for forcing users out of Facebook and into Messenger if they want to text and chat with friends on mobile. But from a business perspective, using Facebook as a place to introduce new apps, and siphon off the user-base into those new experiences may pay huge dividends. It’s clear that Instagram is a natural ad medium for instance. (And note that Zuckerberg is already talking about monetizing WhatsApp. And Facebook’s upcoming developer conference, F8, looks like it is going to focus heavily on using Facebook as an app launch platform.)
This is a risky business. Heavy Facebook users love Facebook. Often, they don’t want change. That happened recently with Home, an Android “skin” that turned your Android phone into a Facebook phone. Zuckerberg learned that when Facebook became the entire phone experience, people started to dislike Facebook as soon as they encountered any bug:
With Home, the reception was much slower than we expected. But it was a riskier thing. It’s very different from other apps, let’s say Paper or Messenger. For those, you install it, and if it’s useful you’ll go back to it and use it. Home is your lock screen. When you install it, it’s really active, and if it does anything that you don’t like, then you’ll uninstall it.