Facebook this week made it over a finish line it has been eyeing for some time. Just under three years ago, Facebook officially hit the billion mark when it came to active users. However, as anyone who has ever tried to plan a family reunion of any kind can attest — the bigger the family gets, the harder it is to get them all in one place at the same time so you can snap the photo.
Well this week, the Facebook family got its act together so to speak – and on Monday 1 billion people logged on to Facebook for the first time in history.
Unsurprisingly, team Facebook was really, really excited.
“On Monday, 1 in 7 people on Earth used Facebook to connect with their friends and family,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted. “When we talk about our financials, we use average numbers, but this is different. This was the first time we reached this milestone, and it’s just the beginning of connecting the whole world.”
In her Facebook postings, COO Sheryl Sandberg both expanded on the theme of the connected world — and movingly shrank the scope of the conversation simultaneously.
“When I think about what it means to have a billion people connected, I think about the man I met in western India who told me that the Internet is bringing down the cost of food in his village,” Sandberg wrote. “I think about how the Facebook community is helping me cope with loss – and learn about enduring love.”
“Everyone on Facebook has a story,” she concluded.
They even made a video about it.
While we can’t resist wondering about when exactly in 2013 they made that video or how crazy waiting to upload it has driven the good people at HQ Menlo Park, California, for the last 2.5 or so years — having 1/7 of the human population tapping into Facebook in a single day is legitimately pretty amazing.
To put that in some perspective, the first Ford Model A was sold in 1903 — 107 years later in 2010 there were 1 billion cars on the road. Facebook launched in 2004, and it took 11 years to have a billion users on the platform all at once, meaning Facebook got its “billion cars on the road” 10 times faster.
So now what? As is the case with many other tech giants, that answer in recent months has led to an ever expanding diversity of purview — moves in messaging, moves in commerce and payments, even a big buy into virtual reality technology.
But as Facebook passed the milestone of having approximately 2 billion eyeballs (1 billion people = 2 billion eyeballs) upon it in a single day, the firm followed up with some less reported on — but undoubtedly interesting moves by putting its toe into the “digital” personal assistant waters. It may seem like small news, especially when stacked against a billion users in a single day, but it might just be the first glimpse at Facebook making its big move on capturing commerce at moment of a buyer’s intention.
“As we all know, the proof is in the execution. If Messenger can execute on its payments ambitions, it could become an interesting new player at the intersection of payments and commerce,” MPD CEO Karen Webster wrote earlier this year.
“Embedding payment inside of messaging is also an interesting way for merchants to explore the one-to-one, personalized, commerce relationship that they seek with their customers. Texting is being used now by businesses to confirm appointments, message about statuses and send useful information that typically generates an immediate action, often 25 to 30 percent higher response rates than via email.”
With their version of an assistant, it seems Facebook is in fact working on making that relationship even closer.
Meet Siri’s Deceptively “Low-Tech” Competition: “M”
In the commercials, it always looks like Siri is going to understand you so well. After all, she totally gets John Malkovich and Zooey Deschanel – and surely your needs are as comprehensible as those of a person who writes a blog called “HelloGiggles.” Siri even reportedly makes jokes — seriously, call her Cortana, she gets positively sassy.
But kidding aside, Siri doesn’t always do as well as advertised with regularly spoken human English — a problem she shares with most virtual assistants on the market today. People report on them as being at times useful, but in general not much more functional than the average search engine — albeit in a slightly more personable form.
But that marketplace got a bit more crowded this week.
Last week, Facebook debuted M, its version of the virtual assistant, and one that is able to do much more “assistantly” like making restaurant restaurant reservations, or sending gifts. One proposed use for the service is waiting on hold with the cable company – (sign us up!).
And this upgrade of service is achieved through some rather low-tech means: human beings. While M will run inside the company’s Messenger mobile app (which boasts 700 million users and is separate from the Facebook smartphone app), the feature will be staffed by a team of M trainers (a team that will, of course, be scaled up as M itself scales) who will ensure that requests are answered.
That is a very different animal than either Siri or Cortana – which are purely tech features. M is also mostly text based – commands are typed to the system, as opposed to Siri and Cortana, which are voice-activated.
A First Step?
The program is in early launch right now – in its current iteration it is being tested by a few hundred people in the San Francisco Bay region. And some are wondering if this 1.0 testing is really the direction the product is being shaped to – or is instead primarily a data gathering exercise to better guide the creation for future AI – which in its current iteration doesn’t have the language processing capacity to be useful. Facebook, TechCrunch noted, might well be looking to build out better voice navigation backstopped by human “assistants” and the limited “M” launch is an early step.
This is consistent with what Facebook Messaging Chief and former PayPal President David Marcus told Wired about the platform — specifically that it is geared to learn from human behaviors. That might mean the difference between, say, finding a restaurant and remembering the restaurant with the amazing dessert or singing waitstaff. And this is a talent the platform can provide for any number of goods and services, given the unique ways Facebook/Messenger have of “knowing” their customers.
Moreover, given Marcus’ background in payments – and the fact that Messenger (where the personal assistant service lives) is also the home of Facebook’s burgeoning payments efforts, it is not really all that far-fetched to think that someone has considered that a virtual assistant — with the hybrid technology/human platform — might somehow bring M to transactions and eCommerce.
Moreover, it could put Facebook and Facebook Messenger — persistently top-rated apps for users of all platforms — in an interesting competition with a variety of players trying to make it easy for consumers to make a purchase at the point of intention. If Facebook creates an assistant that creates lots of those points by better understanding what the user is asking for, it could have a big edge in grabbing those conversions merely with the proximity of its “buy button.”
Facebook as a payments and commerce player has gotten less airplay than some other big players, or even some of Facebook’s other big moves. And there have been plenty of misfires when it comes to payments and commerce. But it did come out, to many surprised faces at the Innovation Project 2015 when the results were announced, as the third most innovative company in commerce and payments – of the 100 that were analyzed.
But Facebook – which is literally getting bigger and more crowded by the minute – has a unique audience and a hard to imitate opportunity to guide a user journey from idea, to intention to purchase.
A journey on which “M” might help to show the way.