January 7, 2016:Facebook Messenger has 800m users – what does that mean for music?

Facebook says its Facebook Messenger messaging app hit the milestone of 800 million active users at the end of 2015, up from 500 million in November 2014.

In fact, the social network’s VP of messaging products David Marcus has published a number of stats showing the scale of the app, which sits alongside WhatsApp in Facebook’s messaging division.

Messenger has now been downloaded more than 1bn times on Android alone; accounts for more than 10% of all mobile Voice-over-IP (VoIP) calls globally; its users send more than 9.5bn photos a month and 5m GIFs a day; and between them Messenger and WhatsApp generate more than 45bn daily messages.

(FYI, globally around 20bn text messages were being sent every day at the start of 2014, so it’s quite possible that both Messenger and WhatsApp now generate more daily messages than traditional SMS.)

Marcus’ blog post announcing the Messenger milestones hammers that point home, predicting “the disappearance of the phone number” as the result of messaging apps’ growth.

“SMS and texting came to the fore in the time of flip phones. Now, many of us can do so much more on our phones; we went from just making phone calls and sending basic text-only messages to having computers in our pockets,” he wrote. “And just like the flip phone is disappearing, old communication styles are disappearing too.”

Nobody tell Adele. But more seriously, Marcus suggests that a key trend for Facebook Messenger in 2016 is that “threads are the new apps”. His argument is worth reading in full:

“We’re seeing a paradigm shift in how people engage. At Messenger we’re thinking about how we can help you interact with businesses or services to buy items, order rides, purchase airline tickets, and talk to customer service in truly frictionless and delightful ways.

It is so much easier to do everything in one place that has the context of your last interactions, as well as your identity (no need to ever login), rather than downloading apps that you’ll never use again and jumping around from one app to another.

Our early tests in 2015 with brands are showing that interactions will happen more and more in your Messenger threads, so we’ll continue making it easy for you to engage with businesses, and we’ll also do more to enable additional businesses and services to build the right experience in conversations.”

That’s a point worth thinking about if you’re involved in marketing music or developing a digital music service. How might fans want (or, indeed, expect) to interact with music and musicians within apps like Facebook Messenger in the years ahead? And what will the emergence of automated “bots” within these services mean for music?

To help you mull these questions, there are a few recent articles worth reading. Start with TechCrunch’s “Forget Apps, Now The Bots Take Over” piece from September 2015, which suggests that messaging apps are “becoming the new platform, subsuming the role played by the mobile operating system”.

“Messaging bots can read and write messages just like a human would. Bots can be programmed to carry out automated actions. Bots can both initiate action as well as respond to requests from other users. Bots are of different kinds, too; they automate conversations, transactions or workflows.

E-commerce bots enable buying of goods and services. Food bots order dinner. Content bots share relevant content with you (e.g., news, weather). Watcher bots notify you when specific events happen (e.g., your flight is delayed, this car needs servicing). Banking and trading bots provide financial services.

Workflow bots automate business workflows in sales, HR, operations, admin, finance, etc. Chart bots summarise data in charts suitable for small screens. IoT bots connect us to our smart homes, cars and devices. Concierge bots provide a wide range of services implemented by other bots. And when all of these bots get to be too much, your Personal Assistant bot manages the communication with the other bots for you escalating only the high-priority requests for which you’ve trained it.”

Music bots would come under the “content bots” category: some clever engineers within Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play and other music-streaming firms are surely sitting down right now to mull what those music bots might do.

Note, Facebook already has a “secret chat SDK” for developers to build bots within Messenger, while other messaging apps like Kik and Telegram already have bots up and running. Google, meanwhile, is reportedly building a brand new messaging app that will include chat bots:

One more piece to read: The Verge’s The Search for the Killer Bot feature, which suggests that “bots are here, they’re learning – and in 2016 they might eat the web”.

“As 2016 dawns, there’s a sense in Silicon Valley that the decades-old fantasy of a true digital assistant is due to roar back into the mainstream. If the trend in past years has been assistants powered by voice – Siri, Alexa, Cortana – in 2016 the focus is shifting to text.

And if the bots come, as industry insiders are betting they will, there will be casualties: with artificial intelligence doing the searching for us, Google may see fewer queries. Our AI-powered assistants will manage more and more of our digital activities, eventually diminishing the importance of individual, siloed apps, and the app stores that sell them.

Many websites could come to feel as outdated as GeoCities pages – and some companies might ditch them entirely. Nearly all of the information they provide can be fed into a bot and delivered via messaging apps.”

No music service is going to ditch its app or website in favour of living entirely within Facebook Messenger. But there is lots of potential for inventive music bots to operate within the big messaging apps.

Or, indeed, to live within the streaming services themselves: what if Spotify had a pop-up chat window to not only message friends, but to chat to an AI helper who could whip you up a playlist based on a couple of sentences about your current mood and musical whim?

What if your messaging app of choice had its own music bot: a personal taste assistant capable of recommending you new bands and playlists and tweaking its approach based on your natural-language feedback?

SpotiBot: “Hey, Stuart, have you heard the new James Bay album?”

Stuart: “He’s TERRIBLE. Don’t ever mention that man again MusicBot. Or his hat.”

SpotiBot: “Sorry, that’s good to know. Hey, there’s a new Hot Chip track out today.”

Stuart: “NOW YOU’RE TALKING HIT ME WITH IT”

*song plays*

(Memo to Spotify product development team: the name ‘SpotiBot’ may need a rethink.)

The crossover between artificial-intelligence technology and music is already one of the most fascinating areas in our industry. But AI + messaging + music is just as interesting, and Facebook’s latest Messenger milestone is a timely reminder.

PS: We’d be willing to put money on Snoop Dogg launching his own chatbot by the end of 2016.

PPS: This isn’t such a new idea. Check this press release from April 2000 about a partnership between tech firm ActiveBuddy and Capitol Records “to build branded interactive agents”, starting with Radiohead:

“The Radiohead agent will reside on a user’s Instant Messenger buddy contact list. The agent will be able to recognise and respond to natural language questions and requests for information about the band and Amnesiac. Tour dates, song lists, artists’ bios, album credits, purchasing information, contact information, current web site information, and other album related material will be available…”

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Stuart Dredge
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