A few weeks after Instagram tested a new feature that allowed users to post their stories directly to WhatsApp, Facebook, which owns both platforms, announced that a prospective integration of metadata of all three messenger services might be on the cards.
“We want to build the best messaging experiences we can; and people want messaging to be fast, simple, reliable and private,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement on Friday. “We’re working on making more of our messaging products end-to-end encrypted and considering ways to make it easier to reach friends and family across networks. As you would expect, there is a lot of discussion and debate as we begin the long process of figuring out all the details of how this will work.”
Until now, WhatsApp, Instagram Messenger have been run as separate and competing products. The services will continue to operate as stand-alone apps but the tech infrastructure will be unified by 2020, the New York Times reported on Friday.
The move to consolidate WhatsApp with Instagram’s direct messages and Facebook’s own Messenger stands to increase the number and ease of secured chats online, but there are too many red flags to ignore.
Disruption in chat
For starters, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly wants the initiative to incorporate WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption objectively the best and arguably the only move that Facebook has taken to protect users’ privacy. But this supposed cure to fragmentation robs the agency and autonomy with which WhatsApp encrypted user chats.
Wired notes how melding the feature into two other platforms, one which allows an option for it (Facebook Messenger) and another which lacks it completely (Instagram DM), could prove to be laborious and challenging, perhaps even and weaken the feature if implemented incorrectly. Designing the scheme to universally preserve end-to-end encryption means the unified entity must be default, otherwise, it undermines the entire system and creates room for error.
Cryptographers and privacy advocates claim that “it can be difficult to use the protection effectively if it’s enabled for some chats and not for others and can turn on and off within a chat at different times.”
Is Facebook willing to lose access to metadata?
Three years after Facebook’s blockbuster acquisition of the global messaging service, WhatsApp creators Jan Koum and Brian Acton announced their resignations last year, after a long dispute over how to generate more revenue with ads and data. Facebook has faced major hurdles in earning revenue off of WhatsApp’s 1.5 billion users because of end-to-end encryption. It would thus make sense for Facebook to “glean more data from unencrypted chats and introduce experiences like bots into them.”
There is no clarity on what happens if an Instagram user texts a WhatsApp user yet, or the ramifications of a unified identity across all three platforms for persecuted and people like transgenders.
But we do know that in 2016, WhatsApp had started sharing user information with Facebook for analytics, erasing a crucial barrier between the two services.
Going forward, in the case of a merged service, it would be harder to use all three messengers without creating a central identity. Most people are known to use different usernames for each of the three platforms, thus making the integration trickier. Presently, only Facebook follows the controversial “real name” policy to create an indelible identity across its platform, for transparency, security and curbing online imposters.
According to WIRED, the proposed monolithic entity could offer Facebook a “richer and more nuanced user data trove” for mining. It could also be a ploy to get more users, especially those who are already on Instagram or WhatsApp but reticent to join Facebook, to sign up on the social network.
Props for e-commerce
That said, the move does demonstrate recognition of the issue of fragmentation among users who rely on messaging apps for daily communication. Cross-platform messaging can promote ease and efficiency of doing business for online sellers, especially in Asia where small businesses heavily rely on these messaging services. Needless to say, the integration provides advertisers and brands with improved ad targeting, making it easier for them to communicate with consumers regardless of the platform used.
But elsewhere, like in Europe, Facebook had rather be more cautious before rolling this feature out, especially after the retinue of charges brought against the platform for illegal data breaches and sharing of users’ personal information in the last year alone. Comprehensively linking user data at a fundamental level may prompt regulators to take another look at its data handling practices.
In a nutshell, higher user engagement to advertisers and rebranding this entity as the go-to messaging service are the two philosophies that guide this combination of assets. By effectively joining all its users into one massive group Facebook could compete more effectively with Google’s messaging services and Apple’s iMessage.
But the entire exercise of integration can backfire due to user confusion, rather than simplifying the entire process. Users are more aware of privacy rights and threats now than ever and separate channels are believed to be generally more secure. That ought to be a bigger priority for the parent firm, rather than finding a solution to our increasingly fragmented messaging app environment.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius