The great Facebook Messenger migration is upon us, and Facebook users are not happy.
Over the last two weeks, Facebook has been pushing its mobile users to install Facebook Messenger, a standalone app for the iOS and Android mobile operating systems that centralizes messages sent through Facebook and adds features like group messaging, video conferencing and selfie-sharing.
If you’ve read or sent a Facebook message with your mobile app recently, you’ve certainly seen the bright, colorful screen that intercepts you and exhorts you to download the new app. Facebook hasn’t specified the deadline for downloading Messenger. But at some point, presumably, you won’t be able to see or respond to messages in the primary Facebook app until you install the messaging app.
Facebook says Messenger, which has existed as an app since 2011, is faster and more engaging and offers more features than its main mobile application’s built-in messages interface.
But Facebook users believe they’re being forced to switch to a separate app to chat with their contacts. And they do not appear pleased. Messenger has a one-star rating from customers using it on the iPhone, with almost 6,422 reviews, from the last few days, as well as pages of negative reviews of the Android version.
The forced installation isn’t the only thing that’s sitting poorly. The app’s seemingly overreaching permissions on Android caused a stir late last year.
The app does take some liberties compared with other messaging apps, although reading any app’s permissions is likely to give you pause. Messenger asks for access to your contacts, location, text messages, camera and microphone and more. And when you install it, its first request is to sync with the contacts on your phone.
It’s not surprising that people’s first response is, “No, thank you.”
Compared to the app permissions for SnapChat, Messenger isn’t wildly different. And Facebook says that even though the permissions list includes bullet points like the ability to read text messages, the app only uses text access to confirm phone numbers.
In other cases, the permissions sound scary, but are actually logical. Permission to access the phone’s microphone to record audio does makes sense: it records audio when you’re taking a video and also when you’re video conferencing.
But Facebook hasn’t done much to make that clear.
A Facebook representative pointed me to the company’s Messenger help pages, which attempt to explain some of the concerns about app permissions. But they don’t cover the entire list.
(Note that an app’s permissions are not the same thing as its terms of service. Facebook told me Messenger is covered by the same terms of service and data use policies as Facebook itself.)
A major source of the problem isn’t Facebook – it’s how Android handles app permissions. I touched on this in my review of the Blackphone, which uses a customized version of Android that gives you more detailed controls over app permissions.
If you installed Messenger on a Blackphone, you’d be able to revoke its access to things you didn’t think it needed, like contacts or location or text messages. Once upon a time, Google itself offered permissions management in the Android version called Jelly Bean, but it has been removed in the latest version of the operating system, called KitKat.
Apple, on the other hand, does a better job of handling app permissions. You won’t see a long list of permission requests when you install Messenger, but when you start using it, you’ll be notified option-by-option of what Messenger wants to access.
So, while adding your location to a message is turned on by default in the Android app, the iPhone version asks permission for Messenger to use location services. Similarly, the first time you tap the video button, you’ll be prompted to allow access to the microphone, and the same is true for access to photos.
And here’s the surprising thing about Messenger: It’s actually not that bad. Although you must download a second app, which is a minor annoyance, you can still see, respond to and receive messages in the full Facebook app.
Facebook describes the process as “switching” to a separate app, but in fact, in the iOS Facebook app, the messages pane is simply replaced with the new app icon, and then you tap the top of the screen to return to the main interface.
On Android, you see the same messages icon as always, but when you tap a thread, you get a drop-down interface that looks a little like a text-message thread. I also like how, on Android, the so-called “chat head” can sit on top of whatever else you’re doing, so if you’re engaged in a conversation you don’t have to switch screens.
And a big selling point for me is that my friends are already on Facebook. I have SnapChat, WhatsApp and Cyber Dust on my phone but only a few friends on each. If I were dying for the ability to send stickers, compose group messages and deliver selfies to my friends, I’d want to go where my friends were — and that’s Facebook.
The flap over Messenger is an example of how Facebook often fails to communicate very well with its users — and how it’s suffering from a long history of mistrust.
For example, I refused to allow Messenger access to my contacts because I didn’t know what it was going to do with them. A Facebook representative told me that syncing would show me which of my contacts who aren’t my Facebook friends also use Messenger. But those people won’t show up for me to chat with unless they, too, have enabled contact syncing. And I can turn off syncing in the settings (which will remove any synced contacts who aren’t my friends) or just disallow it in the first place.
Again, relatively harmless sounding, but I had to call Facebook to find that out, and it’s far more complicated than it needs to be.
As for location services, I turned those off immediately, because there’s no good reason for Facebook to tell my friends where I am all the time.
The fact that people are so upset over the Messenger migration shows that Facebook has used up a lot of our good will and trust over the years, and will have to work that much harder to get users back on board.
Oh, and in the meantime, if you just use Facebook in your mobile browser, all this messaging flap will be moot, anyway. It works just as it always did on the web.
© The New York Times 2014