Facebook wants to replace apps, call centres and maybe even websites with chat bots. Tim Green wonders if this is a new era for the internet – and if it’s a good idea for one company to own it…

This week the manager of Southampton football club confirmed he sends his players to weekly verbal communication sessions. Apparently, the lads never talk any more.

They prefer to zone out inside their massive Beats headphones and stare at their iPhones. I expect they’re researching monkey tattoo ideas on Instagram.

  Technological advance is always based on making things easier to do. Email was better than the post. The app was better than the desktop site. It’s all about getting the right answer quickest. In this respect, maybe human conversation via chat apps wins.

The story made a big splash in the UK this week. It clearly touched a nerve.

We’re all aware of the isolating effect of the smartphone on modern life. At a restaurant recently I was transfixed by a family at the table next to me. The two kids wore huge headphones and played iPad games, while the Mum tapped away on her phone.

Not once through the entire meal was a single word exchanged.

Amazing.

And yet it’s not quite true to say that people can’t communicate any more.

I’d say the opposite is true. All people are doing when they are staring at their Galaxy S7s is communicating.

It’s just that – much of the time – they’d rather correspond with a Facebook friend or Twitter follower than the blood relative sharing their pizza.

This strange impulse to avoid human contact is inside all of us. I know it’s not just me who would rather consult Google Maps than ask a stranger for directions. Or get answers from an instant chat session rather than call customer support.

Which brings me to Facebook’s big announcement this week. At the firm’s big F8 developer event, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a new chatbot system for Messenger.

The big idea here is to let people chat with organisations to get information, answer questions and maybe even buy stuff.

Here’s how it would work (I think). You could add a brand bot to your contacts from a menu or via a search bar inside the Messenger app.

Thereafter, the brand can send you relevant information and you can ask it questions – all using the convenient medium of a chat session.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 17.23.10Crucially, the chatbot can do more than just send texts. It can send emails, show videos and pics, maybe even process transactions.

In a way, the bot is more like a mini app than a mere text sender.

One can imagine how a clothing brand could tell you about a new item and you could buy it just by saying ‘yes’.

While this might just seem like an interesting new comms channel for enterprises, it may in fact signal a huge moment in the history of the internet.

Think about it. If we start talking to brands this way, it’s the beginning of a slow death for apps, websites, push notifications and all the other comms channels we’ve learned to use in the last 20 years.

In fact, Facebook Messenger boss David Marcus was candid about this.  He said: “A thread of conversation is a much better form of app. A Messenger chat retains your identity, the context of your previous conversations and always follows on logically from your last message.”

History shows us that every comms channel is eventually eclipsed.

Technological advance is always based on making things easier to do. Email was better than the post. The app was better than the desktop site. It’s all about getting the right answer quickest. In this respect, maybe human conversation via chat apps wins.

Except they’re not human conversations. They’re bot conversations. That’s the irony.

Of course, this is not a done deal. Last year, Facebook tried to turn Messenger into a mini app store, and that doesn’t seem to have made much impact.

And sometimes messaging can be a terrible medium. I recently downloaded the app from the website Quartz. Its bold idea was to present the news as a chat stream.

Bold but woeful. It just didn’t work. Who wants to have a conversation to get to a news story rather than just browse and click? I deleted it immediately.

Also, inevitably when Facebook is involved, the issue of privacy is always close by. Can Messenger users be sure their conversations won’t be scanned and used by Facebook for advertising purposes? If so, will they care?

tim-greenTim Green

Features Editor

MEF Minute

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Another issue of concern is the way that the chatbot move could consolidate yet more power in the hands of a handful of companies (Microsoft is also supporting chatbots on Skype).

Let’s assume brands abandon sites and apps in favour of cheap-to-build chatbots. That makes companies like Facebook and Microsoft one step closer from providing services on the internet to being the internet itself.

No matter how principled these firms are, that can’t be a good thing.

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