You will be forgiven if you read Mark Zuckerberg's Wednesday post about Facebook moving to "A Privacy-Minded Vision for Social Networking" and thought it was either a death recovery conversion, a cynical trick to avoiding regulation and reassuring users. or even just an absurd musing that the company does not intend to perform (like the "Clear History" feature announced it almost a year ago, which has not yet taken place).
I know I, at various points, all three of the above and many other things to boot.
It is still possible that you took Mr. Zuckerberg on his word, as formerly Microsoft Wunderman Steven Sinofsky did and credited him with recognizing which way the winds were blowing and moving there with thoughtfulness and haste.
In fact, Zuckerberg's essay was probably not one of those things, nor was it about privacy at all (more on that later).  It was about WeChat, Wha tsApp and iMessage.
Zuckerberg's post, minus PR, was a product roadmap. It is aimed at customizing its business to counter one of the only remaining competing threats to Facebook and Instagram: messaging. And it was a smart way to dress up the pivot as a consumer friendly privacy game. Work, win!
Molly Wood (@mollywood) is an ideal contributor to WIRED and the host and senior editor of Marketplace Tech a daily national radio broadcast covering technology business. She has covered the technology industry at CNET, The New York Times and in various print, television, digital and audio formats for almost 20 years. (Ouch.)
Facebook, the core product, collapses. I know it seems like a strong statement given to the company's 2 billion users, but in fact, News Feed is a devastation of reposted memories, divisive propaganda, and occasional baby imagery. US users leave it out of millions, user growth is flat, and personal sharing has declined for many years.
Regulation and even antitrust studies are threatening. Even a handful of advertisers are starting to continue, and the company's brand reputation is declining rapidly. A recent Axios survey put it on 94 out of 100, ahead of just those like the US government, Trump.org, Phillip Morris, and Wells Fargo.
Yes, Instagram looks like the next best hope for the empire, and certainly many users travel from Facebook to land at Insta. But it's still a distant second in terms of usage, and while Facebook is heavily pushed advertisers against stories, they bring far less revenue than news feed ads. Also, as Instagram's product map charts are starting to look more and more like Facebook, the app can get much less appealing.
And if you really look at what teens it really does, contains social media, but at almost every goal they are subtitles. The biggest threat to Facebook and Instagram are messages, which is why, if you remove all the window dressing about privacy, this is the section that matters most:
"Today we already see private messages, ephemeral stories and small groups are far The fastest growing areas of electronic communication There are several reasons for this: many people prefer the intimacy of communicating one-on-one or just a few friends, and people are more cautious about having a permanent overview of what they have shared. Expect everyone to be able to make things like payments private and secure. "
China's WeChat is the model that Zuckerberg almost certainly has in mind. It has about one billion users; combines messages and calls with apps, payments, communications and commerce; and works essentially as a proxy for the internet for its users – who spend well over an hour a day using the app (more time than they spend on Facebook, actually). This is almost exactly what Zuckerberg describes who wants to build the next few years.
You can see why. WeChat is in app ads and payment transaction processing fees make it billions of dollars for the parent company Tencent. It even has a thriving community of creatures and a lucrative social feed called WeChat Moments. It is ubiquitous throughout China and cuts almost all businesses operating in its ecosystem.
But despite the fact that pieces of such a strategy are in place, Facebook is still quite far from expanding a "super app" like WeChat. WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, if combined, get it close with stickers and ephemeral messaging. It can migrate over stories and figure out how to slowly integrate ads, but payment and app features are still at their best.
Apple is in the best position to turn on a WeChat-like product, because it's already an app ecosystem, developers who trust it, tons of stored credit cards and a full payment system. In fact, last year I wrote that Apple would release iMessage across platforms and make it a social network that could really get into Facebook. But the company has so far locked iMessage only on iDevices.
That doesn't mean Facebook has all the time in the world, though.
Mobile phone manufacturers, carriers, and standard agencies are distributing RCS, or rich communication services, as a possible substitute for subtitles, and Google is about to roll it out for Android phones. RCS messages work more like the chat apps we're talking about, where you can send videos, full-size photos, audio messages, make video calls, make easier group messaging, get reader receipts, basically all niceties of iMessage or WhatsApp, but in the standard text program.
All this is a problem for Facebook. We turn off social media – it turns out that is an upper limit to how much "information will be shared." We close the door to the full fire hose of social media in favor of controlled environments, more personal interaction, tools and things that originally made Facebook fun: talking to our friends. So yes, Zuckerberg has attached the trend line exactly, and all he really did on Wednesday was that Facebook's products will try to evolve in that direction.
Now let's get back to this privacy activity. Zuckerberg's essay extends the virtues of privacy, encryption, security and ephemerality. It is not, as WIRED's Issie Lapowsky and Nick Thompson point out, that it will not also be data collection and targeted advertising. There is plenty of it on WeChat, and it might be enough on the integrated messaging platform that Zuckerberg imagines.
The fact that your individual messages can be encrypted in transit does not in any way prevent the Facebook Entity from knowing who your friends are, where you go, what links you click, which apps you use, what you buy, what you pay for and where, which businesses you communicate with, which games you play, and what information you might have given to Facebook or Instagram lately.
After all, even when you turn off tracking, Facebook still tracks you. And remember, this essay comes from a guy who even after mumbling about all the hardships he has had lately in a visit to Harvard last month, he still couldn't stop fantasizing about how amazing it would be to stick directly into his user's brains.
A private and full messaging app will not necessarily change a thing about how Facebook operates over the web in terms of tracking and retargeting. It does not mean that Facebook will not pick up the phone numbers of anyone you message using future apps and use them to compile shadow profiles or recruit new users.
In fact, nowhere in the more than 3000 words that Zuckerberg published on Wednesday, he says that users will ultimately control their own data or have the ability to reduce the amount of data they share with Facebook, or delete the information, or operate anonymously, or pay a subscription fee to reduce or eliminate ad tracking –
It sounds good, but I already have iMessage, so I think I'll pass.