There’s been the usual pearl clutching and hand wringing that often accompanies any announcement Facebook makes, especially since WhatsApp made a big deal of saying there would be no changes to its data use in light of the Facebook deal. Never say never, and all that…
The fact is that 1 in 7 people in the world now uses WhatsApp. That means Facebook is sitting on a data mine of truly epic proportions, and it would be crazy for a “people first” platform to not make the most of this to learn as much about its user base as possible. There’s a real Catch 22 feel about Facebook advertising sometimes –users often lament inaccurate ads when there’s so much information about them available, but whenever platforms try to get a more holistic view, that’s suddenly a massive invasion of privacy that will end with computer chips inserted into your brain at birth.
Call me naïve (or cynical, I can’t decide), but the reality is likely going to be less Matrix, and more Mad Men. The true value of this information isn’t selling innocent people out to the NSA, but helping people like me decide whether a complete stranger might want to sign up to my client’s mailing list. Strangely, the Wachowskisnever got back to me about that film pitch. I’m sure their reply must have got lost in the post.
But what could Facebook do with all that data? While there’s no sign yet of paid promotion coming to WhatsApp (though brand messaging is on the way), the conversations we have can certainly be of use in signalling who we are, what we’re interested in, and who is important to us. Depending on the ins and outs of the data-sharing agreement, the update might also have some interesting consequences for apps that you log in to via Facebook. Spotify might start recommending that band you’ve been talking about seeing, or Tinder might show you someone you’ve been gawping at with your friends. Time (and an increasing succession of regrettable Friday nights) will tell.
I can’t find it in my heart to be annoyed by WhatsApp’s apparent U-turn. Facebook has recognised better than anyone else that it’s impossible to really get to know someone through one profile alone. Adding another platform to the pool is a good move for brands and advertisers. And if, as some people fear, this is another step towards Mark Zuckerberg taking over the world, I don’t think we’ll be needing Neo to save us from the Facebook blue pill just yet.