Nearly a decade after Facebook angered some users by splitting off messaging features from its flagship social networking application and forcing people to download a separate app to chat with friends, the company is now testing out reversing the move.
In an interview with CNN, Facebook head Tom Alison said the platform is testing bringing messaging capabilities back to the Facebook app so users can more easily share content without having to use the Messenger app. The test comes as Facebook looks to beat back competition from TikTok by bolstering its position both as a platform to discover new content and discuss it.
"We believe that content feeds into not just you consuming it but being conversation starters and starting that message thread with your friends or being something that you can share into a group of people who share your same interests," Alison said. "I think the thing that will differentiate Facebook and Instagram from TikTok and others is just the depth of being able to start a conversation with your friends from this content and have that kind of social dimension."
The move, which Alison also announced in a blog post Tuesday, comes after Facebook revised its strategy last year amid concerns about a stagnant and aging user base. No longer would the platform simply be about connecting friends and family. Instead, founder Mark Zuckerberg wanted Facebook to become a "discovery engine."
Facebook redesigned its home feed to surface more entertaining posts from across the platform, with AI-powered content recommendations, rather than just showing posts from those specifically in a user's network. (A new, separate tab fulfilled the desire for the latter.) The goal was clear: to keep users engaged longer and help the platform better compete with TikTok and its steady stream of recommended content.
Nine months later, that shift has begun to pay off, Alison told CNN. The platform last month reported that it hit 2 billion daily active users in the December quarter.
"A lot of the narrative leading up to this has been that Facebook is in decline or Facebook's best days are behind it," Alison said, "and part of what we're trying to do with this milestone is say, 'hey, look, that's actually not true."
There have been no shortage of rumors of Facebook's demise over the years, from its admission of having a "teen problem" a decade ago to the more recent series of PR debacles for the social network and its parent company, Meta. TikTok's rapid rise and even the success of Facebook's sister service, Instagram, have also taken some of the shine off the aging social network Zuckerberg launched in a dorm room nearly 20 years ago. But its audience has resumed growing, for now.
Alison, who has been in charge of the Facebook app since July 2021, said the introduction of the "discovery engine" strategy is just the beginning of a larger shift for the platform, as Facebook works to forge a path to continued growth and relevance over the next two decades.
"For the last almost 20 years ... we've been really known for friends and family, but over the next 20 years, what we're really working toward is being known for social discovery," he said. "It's going to be about helping you connect with the people that you know, the people that you want to know and the people that you should know."
While Facebook and Instagram have struggled in their attempts to keep pace with TikTok, including through copycat features like Reels, Alison argues Facebook has a leg up on TikTok thanks to its roots in helping people connect with their networks.
For some creators, for example, Facebook has become a place to create groups of fans and hold conversations beyond the content they share to Instagram and TikTok, Alison said. "I think it's helping them get closer to their fans on Facebook in a way they can't do on other platforms."
As Facebook plots its evolution, it will have to contend with what Zuckerberg has called the company's "year of efficiency," an effort to cut costs after a broader reckoning in the tech industry and investor skepticism around its pricey plan to center its business model around the future version of the internet it calls the metaverse.
"One of the things that we are embracing with the year of efficiency is prioritization and, frankly, just focusing more effort on some of our bigger bets," Alison said. The platform has over the past year shuttered some smaller efforts, such as its Bulletin newsletter subscription service, in favor of investing in key areas like AI. "That's a lot of the culture that we're kind of instituting across Meta is just like, how do we do fewer things better? And how do we do them, sometimes, more quickly? Efficiency is not just about cost savings."
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