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How Facebook's big ambitions for messaging will impact you

Facebook has unveiled new messaging features, but its toughest projects are still in the works.

Chesnot / Getty Images

Sitting on a grey couch at Facebook's headquarters, Stan Chudnovsky starts talking about what humans can't live without.

The head of the social network's Messenger service isn't speaking about food, shelter or water. Instead, he points to what he and I are doing at this very moment: communicating.

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"There is no human who can live without talking to other humans for a long period of time," Chudnovsky said, his rich Russian accent filling the conference room. "Six or nine months and you would go crazy if you don't have another human to talk to."

Shaping the future of messaging feels sort of like "working on the quintessential element of humanity," he says, fiddling with blue sticky notes as we chat. 

Chudnovsky's Messenger -- and messaging broadly -- will play a bigger role in Facebook's future as the social network transforms. Long a place for posting baby photos or lunch menus to the world, Facebook is increasingly placing a premium on privacy. More Facebook users are sharing posts to a small group of friends or family in virtual spaces that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls digital living rooms.

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The desire for more intimate settings comes as Facebook weathers immense pressure in the face of its own privacy screwups, leaks of user data and leadership woes. The social network has been targeted by activists and politicians for years. Still, the scandal surrounding the company hasn't hit its growth. Roughly 2.38 billion people log into the social network every month.

In March, Zuckerberg said he was focusing on the company's private spaces, including messaging. One initiative: making it possible for Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram users to send messages to one another without switching apps. It's one of the tech giant's toughest projects.

Chudnovsky, who wore Silicon Valley formal wear -- a black T-shirt, jeans and a grey hoodie -- when we met, oversees a team of about 1,000 people working on Facebook Messenger. He knows that Facebook faces stiff competition for messaging users because the market is awash in choices, including WeChat, Line and Apple's iMessage. The goal he and the broader Facebook team have is to create a private space that users want to come back to every day.

On the surface, Messenger seems to be doing fine. It was the most-downloaded app in 2018, surpassing the social network's main app, according to analytics firm App Annie. But people are also spending more time every month in other messaging apps, such as Snapchat, Line and Facebook-owned WhatsApp, compared with Messenger, according to App Annie's 2019 State of Mobile report.

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Facebook Messenger is releasing a feature that will let you co-watch videos with your friends.

Facebook

On Tuesday, Facebook unveiled new features designed to help Messenger's more than 1.3 billion monthly active users interact with businesses, as well as spend more time with close friends. The company rolled out the features at its F8 developer conference in San Jose.

Facebook also plans to release new tools to make it easier for businesses to find customers, book appointments and provide customer service.

Messenger users will also be able to watch videos together, a feature the social network plans to make available globally later this year. In addition, the social network is creating a place on the messaging app where users can see photos, videos and other content that you and your closest friends share with one another. As part of a project called LightSpeed, Facebook is rebuilding the messaging app so it launches in less than 2 seconds and doesn't take up as much space on your smartphone. Facebook Messenger is launching a new desktop app.

"We're just helping to facilitate these connections that people have and desire," said Asha Sharma, Facebook Messenger's head of consumer product, in an interview.

Messaging's future

Many of the new Messenger features seem like a windup to its most dramatic changes, such as integrating the app with WhatsApp and Instagram direct messaging. Facebook plans to add extra security, known as end-to-end encryption, to messages that people send one another in Messenger and Instagram as a default. In theory, this would protect the contents of the messages from being seen by anyone other than the sender or the recipient.

Some analysts see Facebook's pivot to privacy as simply a strategy to protect it from government investigations into its business, increased calls for regulation and a proposal by US Sen. Elizabeth Warren to break up the company. If all the services are tied together, it will be harder to pull them apart, the critics say.

"It's a total defense mechanism against that sort of risk," says Fatemeh Khatibloo, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Chudnovsky says integrating the services addresses a core user desire. Users want to be able to talk to anyone on any messaging app. Facebook is merely trying to make that happen, he says, adding that he was part of the group that came up with the idea to integrate Facebook's messaging services. 

The social network is also exploring a way for users to automatically delete their messages after a month or year. Even building that feature isn't simple. Some users, he says, might want to get rid of their messages after a certain period of time but keep photos and videos.

"All of those things are things that people want," he said. "And we need to figure out a way to deliver them in the right way."

Beating the odds

It's clear from chatting with Chudnovsky that timing and data drive many of his decisions.

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Stan Chudnovsky is the head of Facebook Messenger. 

Noam Galai/Getty Images

Chudnovsky, who grew up Jewish in Soviet Russia during the Cold War, dreamed of moving to San Francisco after reading the works of American novelist Jack London.

The odds of making it to the Bay Area, however, were against him.

"The probability of ever stepping my foot on the soil of San Francisco was probably not as high as it was to go to the moon," he said. "But it was in a similar neighborhood." 

After graduating from Moscow State University with computer engineering and psychology degrees in the 1990s, Chudnovsky decided it was the right time to leave Russia.

He couldn't speak English, but he could code. And in Silicon Valley, that's what mattered. Working as a consultant, he picked up English in conversations with his colleagues. He picked up more by watching Seinfeld.

After co-founding and working at various startups, including a now-defunct social network called Tickle, he landed at PayPal, where he served as the vice president of growth, corporate strategy and special operations. One day, Chudnovsky met with Zuckerberg about a deal between the companies. That's when the Facebook co-founder casually mentioned Chudnovsky should join the social media company. But Chudnovsky had a number of unfinished projects he wanted to complete, including PayPal's spinoff from Ebay.

After the spinoff happened, he realized it was time to leave on a high note. So in 2015, he joined Facebook as the head of product for messaging. He was promoted to the head of Messenger in May.

Chudnovsky says he relies on his team to help him determine the product's direction. 

"When it comes down to 50 percent of the decisions," he said, "I'm probably the first one to recognize that I don't know the best answer."

Every morning, Sharma, the head of product at Messenger, says she receives a message from Chudnovsky asking what he can do for her. "It's a very busy time and so for him to be able to wake up every morning and kind of set the tone is awesome," she said.

Chudnovsky says moments he's regretted in the past often involve the hesitation to act after new information surfaces.

"You have to make a lot of quick decisions," he said. "The end result should be based on data, but you should not hesitate to make them."

Facebook isn't hesitating to place a big bet on messaging. Time will tell if it pays off.