Facebook’s big announcement at the annual F8 developer conference in April was its unveiling of a bot platform that developers could use to build digital assistants that operate within Messenger. The move was meant to expand the functionality of the messaging service, now used by nearly a billion people worldwide, so that it can also deliver customized news and facilitate e-commerce.
Immediate reactions were mixed, and the announcement spurred a lot of discussion about whether users would embrace this newest experiment from one of the world’s largest tech companies. Commenters also mused about how Messenger bots might evolve to play a role in our daily lives. That could depend as much on Facebook’s ability to seamlessly integrate new notifications and chats into the user expereince as on the ability of developers to devise clever functions for all those digital bots.
To keep the bot platform under wraps, Facebook did not conduct any external tests before its release. Now, soon after launch, user and developer feedback is quickly reshaping its future. On Tuesday, at 2016 TechCrunch Disrupt in Brooklyn, N.Y., Stan Chudnovsky, head of product for Messenger, said his team is already making some early revisions to its new bot world.
In one update, Facebook addressed concerns over bot-generated spam. The company knows that if busy bots send too many notifications to users or don’t deliver useful content, their behavior could erode the messaging service’s current status as a highly valued link between friends.
To prevent this, Chudnovsky says Facebook swapped the original “Block” button that appears in the upper right hand corner of each new bot chat to a “Manage” option that permits users to choose the type of messages they wish to receive. “Giving people more control seems to be what people want to have,” he said.
Facebook is also looking at ways to differentiate between messages that are immediately important to users (perhaps those sent by a friend or which include breaking news) and those that can be read later (the pesky bot variety). In practice, this could mean that the company designates a different ringtone or vibration pattern when users receive an urgent message, or that it simply filters certain messages from the instant stream and issues them in a group alert a few times throughout the day.
Overall, Chudnovsky is pleased with the launch and said more than 10,000 developers have begun building bots. He points out that more than 2,500 merchants on Shopify, the company’s virtual marketplace, offer bot-based customer service. “You have a bunch of early signs that the platform is starting to work,” he says.
Of course, it’s not yet clear to users or the company which bots will become most integral to users’ lives. Chudnovsky compares that uncertainty to the early days of Apple’s App Store, when many of today’s most successful apps weren’t yet obvious or even imagined.