Facebook’s new Messenger app for Android phones and iPhones is designed to let groups of people communicate with one another in real time no matter where they are. It’s the first instance in which Facebook has split a core part of its social network from the main product—a move that reflects a shift in how people are using social-media tools.
Messenger lets groups of Facebook users communicate with one another in the moment even if they’re using different communication technologies—for example, with one person using instant messaging, another text, and a third e-mail. Messenger taps into Facebook’s vast supply of data about contacts and connections, including users’ e-mail addresses, instant-message handles, and phone numbers.
Facebook already offers a feature called Groups, which lets people communicate over time about specific topics of interest, and one called Events, which lets them plan social occasions. But these aren’t much good when groups want to communicate on the spur of the moment. “Until recently, you couldn’t do it in real time,” says Lucy Zhang, one of the engineers who built Messenger. Zhang is a cofounder of Beluga, a startup that created group-messaging tools and that was acquired by Facebook in March. Beluga’s technology became the core of Messenger.
Of course, Facebook isn’t the only company looking at adding real-time group interaction to its social repertoire. Google Hangouts, which lets up to 10 people video chat together in real time, has been a standout feature of Google’s new social network, Google+. Earlier this year at South By Southwest Interactive, a conference known for its prescience about social media, the scene buzzed with talk of companies such as Hurricane Party, Fast Society, and GroupMe, all of which offer tools that help groups of people find each other, share photos, and communicate in real time, at parties and concerts, for example. Beluga would have been there too, except that Facebook had already bought it.
“Social-media tools got you to share yourself—they were all about you—but now people are starting to experiment with what happens when you focus on groups of people,” says Matthew Rosenberg, a cofounder of Fast Society. The company has aimed its group-messaging application at younger people out on the town, and has made deals to promote group communication around media events such as showings of the comedy movie Bridesmaids.
Zhang and her team were given deep access to Facebook’s platform in order to revamp Beluga’s product and make it more powerful. Zhang says she was able to ask Facebook engineers to create the exact tools she needed. The team hooked Beluga up to Facebook’s existing text-messaging architecture, as well as to Facebook Chat and e-mail. They designed Messenger’s user interface to make it easy to reach people by name, without having to remember phone numbers, e-mail addresses, or other specifics. “What Beluga could never have achieved [on its own] is the integration with the Facebook network and infrastructure,” Zhang says.
The team also had to address the social norms around different forms of communication. “We want to change communication so that you don’t have to worry about how the other person is receiving the message,” Zhang says. But she notes that people behave differently when using sending an instant message than they do when e-mailing or when text messaging, which costs money. Messenger shows the sender whether the recipient is available on a computer or a mobile device, to help users adjust their behavior and expectations.
“Trying to figure out the right way to build the technology has been the focus, but the question now is, What’s going to come out of group messaging?” says Rosenberg. He hopes that group-messaging apps can help people enjoy social media without being distracted from the people they’re with at the time. “We want to enhance the moment, not take away from it,” Rosenberg says.
Now that big players such as Google and Facebook have introduced group-messaging products, startups will have to work harder to compete. Google and Facebook can afford to provide group-messaging services free, to cement users’ loyalty and gain more data about how people behave. Startups, to keep their users, will have to provide better features.
GroupMe is hoping to extend its group-messaging tool to provide smart recommendations about how users might structure their social lives, according to cofounder Steve Martocci. Earlier this year, GroupMe acquired a company called Sensobi, which analyzes people’s behavior on smart phones to track how well they’re keeping up with contacts. GroupMe may eventually offer suggestions on whom to include in a group chat, or event, or point users to groups they have neglected for a while.
Facebook also plans to take its group-messaging capabilities further. Besides adapting Messenger to work globally (by navigating the intricacies of SMS in different countries), Zhang says, the “logical next step” is to make Facebook Groups and Events into real-time experiences.