By Matthew Payne, head of creative technology, We Are Social
Mark Zuckerberg opened this week's Facebook F8 with a clear dig at Donald Trump and his anti-immigration stance. His message set the tone for the event - it was one of opening up and connecting the world, not of blocking expression - "instead of building walls we can help build bridges". The Facebook CEO's view is that we're one global community and we're all better off for it. There was a lot to get excited about at F8 - 360 VR cameras, Chatbot engines, Sponsored messaging ads, developer kits, more. But here are the themes and developments that stood out for me this year.
All about bots
The headline stealer at F8, at least for agencies and brands, has been the introduction of Chatbots on Messenger. What are the brand implications? Content teams will need to start creating brand / product personalities that can now truly interact with people; digital user experience dictates that the expectation will be for chatbots to be more than dumb service robots.
There will be a host of fairly predictable teething problems here. As we've already seen, the bots can be slow - consumers want and expect real time. They will arrive rampantly, but most will probably be terrible at first. Can bots replace humans in customer service tasks, such as call centre support? I wouldn't rule it out in the long-term once brands get their acts together.
Tying all of this in with machine learning will help brands better understand users and their interactions. We now find ourselves at the point where technologies, in what was previously considered advanced fields of study, are becoming available for everyday use.
West (still) chases East
While Facebook showed some impressive developments in messaging, in many ways the West is still playing catch up with East here. Facebook boasts Messenger as the 'next big platform for sharing privately', but much of what Messenger is trying to become is what apps like WeChat already deliver. But finishing second is better than not finishing at all, and this is a step in the right direction.
The crucial thing for brands to remember is that Messenger is a personal space, so brands need to work out what purpose they have on the platform - they must be useful, not spammy. Once you start to build a Messenger community do not simply start messaging them in a similar way to SMS. Part of what makes the likes of Snapchat so successful is that brands there aren't constantly slapping readers round the face with unwanted content. Remember users can block you very easily.
I also hope to see the Messenger team start to push the boundaries of what the app can do even further, allowing for more unique experiences such as custom pages, better search, gamification and so on. Some of these would require an in-app browser that's actually good, so people aren't forced to leave the platform for the experience.
Another shot at search
So far, Facebook's attempts at grabbing some of the search market share haven't been anywhere near enough to keep anyone at Google HQ up all night (Graph Search anyone? Didn't think so). Now, with Messenger allowing consumers to search for brands and speak directly to to them about their purchases, Facebook will be hoping this helps shift at least some of consumers' queries in their direction, cutting out the search engine giant. Facebook wants to be able to lay claim to as much consumer data as possible - capturing some of this market will be a win for them if successful.
Everyday VR is still a way off
Integrating virtual reality and augmented reality in the everyday consumers' life sits at the latter end of Facebook's 10 year plan, when it's cheap and prolific enough for everyone to use easily. However, it's clear that they are still pushing heavily in the area in the short term. The plans announced at F8 were exciting and progress is already being made with Gear VR launched, Oculus Rift shipping (soon…) and early adopters already viewing over a million hours of VR content.
While complete social VR experiences may be a long way off, Facebook's long-term plan is sensible and there is great progress being made. There are a number of social VR spaces out there already. Go try them out and go to any event or experience offering VR - you will see the strides companies are making in this field with every demo you try.
The bigger picture
Away from the consumer-focused products targeted at those of us in the developed world, there was a much bigger message at F8 - one of how Facebook is connecting people globally. As part of its 'Free Basics' programme Facebook is building drone planes and satellites to bring the internet to more people who can't currently get online. These people won't have disposable income to spend on data allowances, so developers will be asking themselves what they can create for billions of people without a lot of money, using internet with tiny data packages - it's a chance to do some good for the world, potentially helping people and communities grow and develop. No doubt we'll see the most innovative and forward-thinking brands moving in on this space too, even if it is sometimes for slightly cynical PR reasons.
Social thinking at the heart
The biggest positive takeaway for me from the conference was to see Facebook's focus on social thinking, not just on platform specific updates. It's time we stop thinking of social as just 'social media' - it's about asking the question "how can I bring people together" - and this is exactly what Facebook is doing. It reflects what we're trying to do at We Are Social too, using innovation and creative technology to help brands provide something really useful for people.
The contrast between Facebook's two worlds - the data-heavy commercial bots and the provision of what we'd consider the most basic online access, was stark. It felt a little ironic that when Zuckerberg told the audience that Facebook has a drone plane that can fly at 60,000 feet to open up the internet to the rest of the human race, bringing billions online, no-one seemed that bothered, but when shortly afterwards it was announced that Facebook was giving out free VR headsets and phones, everyone went nuts.
But you have to be optimistic to want to change the world and we saw that as usual, Zuckerberg has this in abundance. It'll be fascinating to watch how this plays out over the next decade as Facebook's plans unfold. What we should be doing as developers and creative technologists, and as brands and agencies, is to be innovative with how we experiment and adapt to these changes. This isn't about being first but doing it right. Go out there and help one another.
By Matthew Payne, head of creative technology, We Are Social