Facebook has been in the news a lot these past few years. From the Cambridge Analytica outbreak to more recent questions by governments about how Facebook protects privacy and its users. So, this year’s F8 was something we all were looking forward towards to understand how Facebook looks at these issues and what its plans are.
F8 kickstarted a bit earlier for me, since I was invited for an executive breakfast with Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg. Sheryl is so charismatic, that just her presence lights up the room. I saw and met up with a few of the other senior folks at Facebook at chat on what can be expected in the F8. Great conversations and coffee ensured that it was a great kick off to the day.
At 10 am, it was time for the keynote, the session that would define the tone of Facebook for the coming year. Mark came up on stage and in his usual relaxed yet focused way, began with “We are here to build a privacy focused social network, so let’s get to it!” It was clear that Facebook had done a lot of thinking and re-strategising on how they would take this privacy war on the front foot.
He went on to talk about “Town Halls” and “Living Rooms” and how Facebook has focused on the former till now but going forward is going to focus on the personal, living room sort of communication. His defining words, 'The future is private' echoed throughout the hall.
From then one each of the speakers, showcased how each of the products of Facebook are going to be privacy focused. Messenger is getting encrypted video calls to begin with. Whatsapp re-enforced how it was already end-to-end encrypted for the past three years and how all the newer feature such as group video calling, payments and even location sharing is all encrypted.
It was quite clear the Messenger, Whatsapp and Stories are the future of Facebook. Stories (Status on Whatsapp) are already overtaking feed based in terms of growth and it seems the permanency and global nature of the feed is losing its appeal to the more personal ephemeral stories format.
Another key insight for Whatsapp and hence, very important from the Indian context is the expansion of Whatsapp for Business. Along with the Whatsapp Business App and API, there is a new addition of “Product Catalogue” in Whatsapp. This would allow businesses to easily list products, prices and availability. A huge plus for small entrepreneurs who don’t have website store fronts. Even Whatsapp Payments which is currently in beta with 1 million users in India, should see a fresh push from Facebook.
The other big push seems to be a middle ground between one-to-one living room style conversations and largely public status updates is Groups. Facebook is clearly focused on more neighbourhood style communication of communities via Groups.
In fact, Facebook revealed their new app and website design (the app is available today in US and will be rolled out across the world in the coming weeks and the new website will come out in Fall i.e. August). The focus on groups is evident. What is also interesting, is the Marketplace, which came about as a product, due to the large amounts of buy/sell groups on Facebook is also getting the spotlight. Facebook is clearly moving towards communities.
There are numerous improvements to Instagram as well, Instagram shopping becoming more popular and Checkout (a way to buy stuff in Instagram itself without leaving the app) being launched in the US. A new shopping channel in the Explore feed was also announced.
Product catalogs and payments in Whatsapp, Marketplace prominence in Facebook and Checkout, Shopping Channel in Instagram clearly shows the company is shifting its focus from ads to commerce. This makes sense, as privacy and one-to-one communication that is encrypted increases, feed based ads will not have the signals and audience that it has today and hence, commerce makes perfect sense.
Facebook also reminded us of Portal, the hardware device that allows video calls across messenger, which it launched last year, is a integral piece in their commitment to one-to-one communication. Portal will be sold in more countries besides the US and will also allow Whatsapp video calls with full end-to-end encryption on both messenger and Whatsapp. I am quite excited to see how this pans out in the evolved markets, while I don’t see it impacting the Asian markets as much, which are clearly mobile and single-device markets rather than multi-device markets such as the US and Europe.
The VR platform of Facebook, Oculus also had some interesting updates. The launch of Oculus Quest, a standalone VR headset, at $399 is also exciting. All the attendees at F8 get one! With that I’m off to collect mine, see you tomorrow again with another round of updates from day two.
(The author is CEO, DAN Programmatic and chief data officer, DAN South Asia.)