Only a matter of time before ads hit M
Although Facebook says M won't currently use the targeted user data it owns on its roughly 1.5 billion users, the situation could very well change over time if the company reaches a point where it can't handle all of the activity that's managed by its staff today. Messenger already operates somewhat separately from Facebook and its user data, because it does not make users have Facebook accounts.
"It's a bit vague exactly how much of Facebook's M is going to be human versus computer-driven, and I suspect that the goal is to get to largely machine-driven eventually, but be heavily reliant on human beings upfront," Dawson says.
"The challenge with gaining credibility as a virtual assistant, of course, is recommending truly the best option rather than the highest bidder, and that's particularly a problem with businesses that make most of their money from advertising," he says. "Facebook's going to have to be very careful not to cross that line if it's to be successful here."
Advertising drove 94 percent of Facebook's $4.04 billion in revenue during the second quarter of 2015, and it's a safe bet that Facebook's motivation for entering the virtual assistant space is to eventually provide advertising. Blau suggests that virtual personal assistants like M won't be able to operate in the future without businesses backing them up and working in cohorts behind the scenes.
"There is a platform play here that we haven't really seen yet," Blau says. "[T]here will be a platform war, so to speak, coming about getting these businesses to sign up for them and to offer connections into these virtual personal assistants that will help them become more robust."
By downplaying the eventual connections that could occur between M, advertising and Facebook's vast mountain of user data, the company walks a fine line between utility and privacy, Blau says. "To me it's a pattern. 'This is Facebook, but it's not really Facebook, so don't worry about [advertising] right now. Trust us.' I'm sure this piece of it was carefully designed to not increase the distrust any more than they have to."
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.