The Future of Facebook Is Private,
But the Present is ‘Purpose’

Every year, when Facebook holds its annual F8 conference to announce new features and updates, developers and marketers hold their collective breath as they wait to see how the company’s strategies and priorities will shift. This is true even for organizations working in the social impact and purpose space, who traditionally have had to get creative with the tools Facebook offered that weren’t always engineered for their goals.

Because of recent criticisms about how they handle privacy and dissemination of information, this year’s announcements from Mark Zuckerberg and his leadership team were punctuated by Facebook’s new mantra, “The Future is Private.” But is it really? The updates certainly covered a lot on content privacy (ephemeral stories and encrypted chats, for example), but content privacy doesn’t mean data or user privacy. The announcements did nothing to clarify the latter.

Even so, Facebook is primarily looking to change its image by aiming to be more community-and-expression-focussed, while promoting “meaningful interactions” based on common interests. And the reality is that many of these common interests are centered around issues of social purpose and impact. We’re not the only ones saying that. Zuckerberg, in his speech, highlighted two examples for meaningful communities – one was on environmental conservation, the other a support group for military families.

That’s why some of the most popular apps in the world still demand our attention. Below are our biggest takeaways from the 2-day event, with a few thoughts on how these changes will impact those looking to profit with purpose.

Facebook: This erstwhile favourite app of Facebook (which had to bear the brunt of the criticism the company faced) still gets some love by being the poster child for its central focus – community and connections.

Groups continue to be at the heart of what Facebook says it stands for. This is reflected in the new layout and content you’ll see on your News Feeds.
• Facebook wants you to maximize your community opportunities – through Groups, a “Meet New Friends” feature, and a “Secret Crush” feature, which is essentially Facebook’s swipe-left equivalent of being matched with a secret crush in your friend list.

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YOU: This app may be where brands have to challenge themselves the most – how do you advertise yourself to closed communities on a platform already suppressing organic reach? As Facebook favours communities who are coming together for a more meaningful purpose beyond sharing what they’re doing or eating, it’s time for brands to rethink their overall content marketing or brand strategy. Using the currency of purpose to appeal to these groups that are typically formed around causes that people are passionate about, may be the most lucrative way to trade for engagement and relevance with these communities.

Instagram: The most immediately relevant features for social impact came from Facebook’s current favourite app, which the company declared as “focussed on expression.”

• Donation Stickers for Instagram Stories now allow you to donate to select US organizations in the app itself.
Safety Features: Instagram wants to lead the fight against online bullying. It’s testing functionalities to be “safe” on Instagram during vulnerable moments in your life, including:

o “Nudge”, a feature to warn you if you are about to say something hurtful
o “Away” mode, which allows you to switch off during sensitive moments in your life
o “Manage Interactions”, a tool to limit the type of interactions you have with people

• Private Likes: Probably the most polarizing feature announced, Instagram’s test to hide like counts and de-emphasize follower count is one to watch out for, especially because it’s piloting the test in Canada already. Account owners will still have access to these numbers; it just won’t be public.

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YOU: Donation Stickers can be a game-changer for fundraising organizations that are increasingly turning towards Instagram for reach and engagement, especially among millennial and younger audiences. This may be a feature that every country would want soon.
Private Likes will likely be a major disruption to influencer marketing, where influencers rely on these visible metrics to charge a premium for their promotion. However, Instagram wants to prioritize self-expression over (visible) reactions, so its efforts to balance these will be under scrutiny.

Messenger: Messenger has been somewhat relegated to a middle-child position, but it’s getting some serious attention now from Facebook.

Inter-operability: Messenger will soon allow you to call people across Instagram and WhatsApp. Why is this cool? We’ll know soon (hopefully).
End-to-End Encryption: Surprisingly, Messenger is not encrypted end-to-end, unlike WhatsApp. But that’s the future goal for Facebook. Meanwhile, you can check out its Secret Conversation feature.
Desktop App: A new desktop app on Mac OS and Windows will debut later this fall
Customer-centric Features: Developers will find it easier to build customer-centric features like in-app appointment bookings.

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YOU: In addition to these features, Facebook is granting the app superpowers like loading the fastest and taking up the least storage (part of a project called Lightspeed), indicating that Facebook wants Messenger to stand on its own as a holistic social network. Brands will need to brainstorm how they can use this for their specific goals.

WhatsApp: You’d think that WhatsApp is a little ignored but actually the app is huge in many parts of the world.

WhatsApp Business: Businesses can promote in-app shopping and also display their entire catalogue for in-app browsing.
WhatsApp Payment: A feature already being tested in India and to be rolled out worldwide later, in-app payments will be critical for small businesses.

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YOU: Small businesses probably benefit the most from these WhatsApp updates for now. But as Facebook continues monetising this app, the in-app business opportunities for WhatsApp may also balloon. Meanwhile, it would be useful to follow case studies from the countries where these features are being utilized.

On top of these, Facebook also announced significant updates to its AI, AR (new effects), VR (the new Oculus VR device), and smart-home (Portal, which can integrate with WhatsApp for encrypted conversations) services.

There’s no doubt that many of these features can be leveraged or re-purposed to create social impact. Facebook actually put some spotlight on social impact on day 2 of F8 by explaining how its improved AI technology will better recognize content promoting explicit imagery, violence, or spam, to help tackle those issues more quickly.

But as Zuckerberg and his team themselves acknowledged, this isn’t going to happen overnight and there’s a long way to go. The privacy and security that users want in their social platforms will not be provided immediately.

But the company’s revised ideology where it favours purposeful interactions in tighter communities should compel us now to think about how to use social purpose as a segue into these groups, because that’s what many of them are talking about. Strategic cause marketing could help sustain the momentum that brands typically struggle to maintain on Facebook’s platforms. While we wait for the future to become private, we need to leverage purpose now.

Aswini Sivaraman is Manager, Social Media & Analytics at Public Inc.

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