Instagram and Facebook Messenger will still remain as standalone apps and a user's inboxes will stay separate, the companies said. The new messaging option could change the way people keep in touch with their family and friends through social media, some of whom may be using Facebook but not Instagram. Facebook owns photo-service Instagram and messaging app WhatsApp. More than 3 billion people log into one of Facebook's apps every month. Facebook has also been working on a way for WhatsApp users to chat with Facebook Messenger and Instagram users but it's unclear when that effort will be completed.
Facebook and Instagram say they're responding to a shift in how people communicate on social media. More people are chatting in private online spaces such as messaging apps instead of posting comments publicly.
"One of the biggest pain points with messaging apps is managing conversations across multiple apps...it's a hassle," Loredana Crisan, who leads product design at Facebook Messenger, said in a virtual press conference. About 70% of people surveyed by Facebook said they used three or more messaging apps at once, Crisan said. Sometimes, people can't even remember where to find a particular conversation.
Facebook's plans to integrate its messaging services has already sparked antitrust, privacy and security questions. The rising popularity of messaging apps could also make it more challenging for social networks to moderate content that includes hate speech, harassment and other offensive remarks.
The tech giant has faced calls from politicians, celebrities and Chris Hughes, one of Facebook's co-founders, to break up Instagram and WhatsApp from Facebook. Critics argue that Facebook holds too much power, posing a threat to democracy and user privacy. Facebook has said that it doesn't think breaking up the company will hold the social network more accountable for its toughest problems such as combating misinformation and doing a better job of protecting user data.
The social network is also trying to encrypt messages on all of its messaging services by default, which means that only the users can read the messages. WhatsApp messages are already end-to-end encrypted, but that's not the case on Facebook Messenger or Instagram direct message. Facebook Messenger has an opt-in feature called Secret Conversations that lets users send encrypted messages. Law enforcement and politicians have raised concerns that adding end-to-end encryption to all of its messaging apps will make it tougher to catch bad actors such as child predators and terrorists who abuse these services.
"We want to spend a lot of time to make sure that all of those systems are right and so it's hard to give a timeline for when this is coming in because it's not at all deadline driven," Crisan said.
Facebook's efforts to integrate its own messaging apps could also lay the foundation for a future where it's possible to chat with someone on a rival social network like Twitter, Snapchat or TikTok without having to download another app. But interoperability between social networks would still be incredibly difficult to accomplish because various apps have different security safeguards and features. The company's employees compared the integration between Facebook Messenger and Instagram direct message to email where you're able to send messages to different accounts without having to sign up for a new service.
"We are prioritizing getting these things to work across from inside the Facebook family," said Vishal Shah, Instagram's head of product. "There might be in the future opportunities to extend them more broadly, but I don't want to undersell the...difficulty of trying to do that."
Facebook said the ability to message people across Instagram and Facebook Messenger along with new features will be released on mobile, but there are plans to introduce these new tools on desktop. The company will roll out this new option to a few countries before expanding globally. Facebook didn't specify what countries will get these new tools on Wednesday.
Instagram and Facebook Messenger users will have to change the settings in the apps so they can chat with their friends and family across these services. On Messenger, there's a way to opt into chatting with Instagram users under a section called "Message Delivery." On Instagram, the setting is under a section called "Message Controls."
New features and privacy controls
Facebook and Instagram are also rolling out 10 new messaging features, including a "vanish mode" so your messages disappear after they're viewed or when you close a chat. Shah said that Facebook still has access to ephemeral content in case a user reports a vanishing message to the social network for violating its rules.
The messaging services will also let you send "selfie stickers," a hybrid of a Boomerang (a short video that loops), emojis and selfies. You'll also be able to watch videos on Facebook Watch, IGTV and Reels with your friends and family.
Some of the new tools will be released for Instagram users before they're available on Messenger. Instagram is also adding features that were already available on Messenger to its direct messaging service. That includes the ability to respond to a specific message in a group chat and forwarding messages to up to five friends or groups.
Facebook has been under more scrutiny for privacy mishaps after revelations surfaced in 2018 that UK political consultancy Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of up to 87 million Facebook users without their permission. The social network said advertisers won't be able to target ads based on what you say in your messages on Messenger and Instagram.
Facebook said privacy settings within the Instagram and Facebook Messenger apps will let users control who reaches their Chats list, who goes to their Message Request folder and who can't message or call them. An Instagram user, for example, can choose not to receive messages from Facebook users. They can also block someone across both apps from chatting with them.
Facebook has been integrating the apps it owns in other ways. This week, the company said it was testing a tool called account center that will let users share a story (a video or photo that vanishes in 24 hours) to both Instagram and Facebook at the same time and includes a single sign on option.