When you get powerful enough, you can create your own reality.
On Monday, Facebook launched a new product aimed at children from 6 to 12 years of age. Messenger Kids is a battened-down version of Messenger, the chat app that began as a feature within Facebook before splitting off in 2014. Parents have to approve all of their children’s contacts, can limit how much time they spend chatting, and receive reports whenever a child flags a message for bullying or other abuse. The app also offers kid-friendly features like augmented reality face filters and child-safe GIF search.
“Facebook is trying to cross every t and dot every i when it comes to safety with this new product,” reports TechCrunch. David Marcus, the Facebook executive in charge of Messenger, says parents had “a real need” for an app that would allow smaller children to communicate with one another without the risk of them being approached by strangers.
But after a year in which the company has been accused of everything from permitting illegal housing discrimination to enabling Russian interference in the American presidential election and then repeatedly underreporting the scale of that interference, few outside the reality bubble seem inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt.
“Facebook is building a pipeline of new users starting when they are 6 years old,” tweeted Casey Newton, the Verge’s Silicon Valley editor. “How can the engineers and designers who built this product feel good about it?”
Speaking to BuzzFeed, Marcus explicitly challenged the narrative that Messenger Kids is a feeder product for “the big blue app.” In a sign of restraint, a Kids account won’t automatically graduate to a grownup account when the user turns 13. “The goal is not to get kids onto Facebook,” Marcus told BuzzFeed’s Alex Kantrowitz. As he framed it, the real targets of the strategy here are parents (and older siblings), who will spend more time using Messenger — and seeing ads and conducting commerce there — if they can get their families together in one digital location.
Assuming that really is the business logic here, it makes sense, because subordinating Messenger to Facebook is looking more and more like an unwise bet. As Nick Bilton writes in Vanity Fair, there’s good reason to think the popularity of social media has peaked, with prominent Silicon Valley figures like former Facebook president Sean Parker and venture capitalist Mark Suster saying they think the technology has become addictive and unhealthy.
And there are hints of this mindset taking hold more broadly. An analysis by Pivotal Research of Nielsen data showed Facebook usage declining year-over-year by 3 percent in August. More and more, it’s Facebook-owned apps like Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp that are the company’s growth engines.
Noting that Mark Zuckerberg is now a father of two, TechCrunch calls Messenger Kids “a sign that Facebook is growing up.” But there’s another word to describe growing up: maturing. If Facebook is indeed becoming a mature business, the temptation to prop it up by siphoning in young children will be strong.
That would be foolhardy. As it stands, Facebook is surprisingly well positioned for a world in which messaging replaces social media as the primary substrate for digital life. If the taint of distrust spreads across its sister brands, that won’t be the case.
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