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Facebook Messenger 2.0: Lotsa Bots

Innovator, entrepreneur and architect of “the greatest show on Earth” P.T. Barnum famously said, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.”

This week, going into its F8 conference — Facebook’s annual in-house version of the greatest show on earth for its developers — the world got a bit of counterevidence, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg did have to divert time to address the murder of a 74-year old grandfather on Easter Sunday that was broadcast live to the world via Facebook Live and then left up for several hours before Facebook officials took it down.

“We have a lot of work, and we will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening,” Zuckerberg noted before launching into the latest and greatest of “what’s next” for Facebook.

And from there, F8 took on a much more forward-looking tone — with AR/VR and bots playing the day’s starring roles.

“If you take one thing away from today, this is it right here. We’re making the camera the world’s first augmented reality platform,” Mark Zuckerberg told the assembled about the series of AR/VR updates coming to the Facebook platform.

And while the AV/VR stuff was certainly the headline grabber — and very exciting for gamers everywhere — for payments and commerce watchers, the bulk of the action today was in the series of announcements regarding Facebook Messenger.

Dubbed “Messenger 2.0” by David Marcus, Facebook’s SVP of Messaging Products, during his keynote remarks, Marcus announced that there are 100,000 bots on the platform, up from 33,000 in September, and 100,000 developers working on the platform. The number of messages sent between consumers and businesses has now hit two billion a month.

But, Marcus noted, there are improvements that users have been calling out for — and that some of those improvements are now being made so that Messengers’ 1.2 billion active users can truly use the service as “the new social living room for the world, where people can hang out, share, chat, play games or buy things, while being able to reach nearly everyone, wherever they are.”

Discovery

Noting that the previous year — year one for bots on Messenger — had been about building capacity up and out, this year is about using the service to its fullest potential.

“Now that we have enough developers and enough businesses responding to messages — 65 million businesses and pages, nearly 20 million of them responding to messages every month — it’s about scale and getting those experiences in the hands of … more people.”

A part of that expansion equation is the addition of a discover tab for users to browse and find bot experiences.

“Right now if you know what you’re looking for, you can find it through search, but you couldn’t browse all the experiences; there hasn’t been a way for you to do that,” says Marcus.

Going forward, that problem will hopefully be rectified with the launch of Messenger’s Discovery tab, which will give users an opportunity to see their recently used bots, browse categories, see trending experiences or search for specific bots. Users will also be able to check out a preview screen to see what a bot does before interacting with it. Developers who wish for their bots to be displayed must submit a separate application form.

More than making the experience of discovery easier, Messenger is also looking to make chatbots themselves more social.

Chat Extensions and a New Digital Assistant

Chat Extension allows messenger bots to interact in group chats — as long as said bot is Messenger compatible — meaning meals can be booked via OpenTable, songs shared via Spotify (and, coming soon, Apple Music) and group trips booked via SnapTravel.

Kayak, the NBA, the Food Network and The Wall Street Journal were also among the bigger names launching group bots today.

The good news for bots is that the non- one-on-one interaction actually plays better to the bots’ strength, because it is under much less pressure to appear to be human, since, well, humans, actually do much of the interacting and bots sort of come along for the ride.

Messenger also launched QR codes for the physical world that open a specific command inside a bot.

While Discovery and Extension were both widely expected improvements to be announced today, Facebook did get off a bit of a surprise with an enhancement of Messenger’s AI assistant, called “M.”

M can now make suggestions about a variety of topics — ranging from sending or requesting payments to scheduling plans. The full ability set will launch with Delivery.com but is planned for rapid expansion to other players.

Initially, Chatbots got off to a rocky start. About this time last year even David Marcus admitted it was a little too easy to build a bad bot — but Messenger is clearly trying to turn it around.

“Chatbots were always a means to an end, not an end,” says Stan Chudnovsky, head of Product at Messenger. “Our goal was always to enable meaningful and useful conversations between people and businesses. Bots were a means to achieve that goal.”

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