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At Facebook F8, Mark Zuckerberg Takes a Few Steps Forward and a Few Steps Back

The much-maligned CEO’s new focus on privacy figured prominently in his keynote address, if not in all of the social platform’s new tools

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Tuesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took the stage at the 2019 F8 Developer Conference in San Jose, California, with what seemed like undeserved confidence. The CEO and his company have been the subjects of increasing user dissatisfaction, and more generally, societal distrust. Over the past year, Facebook has given the world more and more reasons to be wary of it. But F8 is where the social network hoped to change that negative sentiment, or at least pacify it.

To no surprise, Zuckerberg’s keynote focused on his new agenda to turn Facebook into a privacy-focused social network. He said Facebook is undergoing a “major shift in how we run this company,” and that it is “building the kind of future we want to live in.” Such platitudes are common in CEO keynotes, and can often overshadow the specifics. While Zuckerberg continues to emphasize the new privacy ideals of Facebook, the social network is increasing public visibility and data-sharing in some of its new tools. In keynotes, it can be difficult to track what exactly is changing, and whether those changes will actually be a benefit (as they’re always described) to users, or a potential new frustration. To that end, here’s a look at five ways Facebook’s updates may be improving the user experience, followed by five ways it may be taking a step back.

Five Steps Forward ...

Less focusing on Instagram likes

As speculated, Instagram will begin testing hiding like counts from photos and view counts from videos. If users choose to do so, they can tap through to see a specific post’s metrics, but their followers won’t see anything except for the content itself. The idea, of course, is to encourage people to focus on the photos and videos themselves and not on their popularity. Instagram vice president of content Adam Mosseri said it’s part of an effort to make the network “less pressurized.”

Messaging apps get end-to-end encryption

Facebook’s overarching theme at this year’s F8 was “Facebook, but private.” Zuckerberg has been speaking ad nauseum about the social network’s push to not only be the digital town square, but also the digital living room. While much of this new attitude comes as a reaction to mounting criticism of Facebook’s privacy and data failures, it’s also ushering in some tangible changes that benefit users. Case in point: end-to-end encryption for Messaging and Portal. Facebook doesn’t have a launch date for when video calls and messages will be encrypted by default, but the function is coming (as is a speedier, less data-hungry version of Messenger).

Facebook’s donate button is heading to Instagram Stories

Facebook announced that its donation tools have raised more than $1 billion for various charities. Now, a donation sticker is being added to Instagram Stories. It will look similar to Instagram’s poll and questions stickers, and will allow users to enter a monetary amount of their choosing.

New and improved VR headsets—including one without wires

Facebook bet big on VR, and while there haven’t been many virtual groundbreaking moments for the social network, it’s still plodding along. Facebook announced two new Oculus Rift VR headsets, the Oculus Quest and Oculus Rift S. The Quest is particularly interesting: It’s completely wireless, so users can move about freely instead of being tethered by cords. One of the major complaints of VR has been the inability to roam around while inside these virtual worlds, and the Quest—though a less powerful option—will allow that. The Rift S will require the headset to be hooked up to the computer, but it also has a crisper picture and wider field of view. Both will cost $399.

Facebook Marketplace adds nationwide shipping

Say what you will about Facebook, but it’s Craigslist-competitor Marketplace is a well-oiled machine. All of the annoyances of peer-to-peer selling and buying are (for the most part) absent from Marketplace, and it’s an incredibly user-friendly, easy-to-use tool. Now Facebook is adding the ability for users to ship items anywhere in the U.S., and buyers can also pay directly within the application. Up until now, Marketplace has been a local-only feature, but the ability to ship and buy cross-country will make it an even more popular platform not only for reselling, but also for creators. Sellers can also do live broadcasts to show off their wares—sure, that sounds a little like a low-rent QVC, but it will be useful.

… Five Steps Back

Secret Crush is an awkward disaster waiting to happen

Facebook’s third-party app platform used to be a limitless playground for developers to experiment with our data … and we all know how well that went. Things are far more restrictive for Facebook app creators now, but back in the day “who has a crush on you” was a very popular app genre. Apps like Bang With Friends and Secret Admirer could reveal which of your friends was interested in you, and naturally, this could lead to some tricky social situations for users. Facebook has decided to resurrect this app category with Secret Crush, a feature of Facebook Dating. Users can create a private list of their friends they’re interested in; if these people are using Facebook Dating, they will be alerted that someone has a crush on them. If secret crushes are matched, Facebook will alert them both, à la Tinder. But even if a user’s crush isn’t using Facebook Dating, they can still be added to the Secret Crush list—which might compel curious non-Dating users to join the service. Even if you have no interest in using Facebook to find a date, the curiosity factor of finding out whether a friend has a crush on you might be motivation enough. It’s a user number grab—and, if the data is exposed or mishandled in any way, a potential source of humiliation.

Portal is expanding, and getting more access to private conversations

Portal was supposed to be last year’s big F8 reveal, but the Cambridge Analytica scandal caused Facebook to push the launch back. What was intended to be a flashy product announcement was instead a relatively subdued rollout. Despite the quiet launch, Zuckerberg said that Portal is actually selling quite well and will be available in more countries soon. The video-calling hub is also adding features like daily updates on Facebook friends’ activities and the ability to send private messages. This means, of course, that users will be divulging more personal information and conversations to the smart speaker/video caller. What could possibly go wrong?

Mark Zuckerberg attempted to joke about privacy

While Zuckerberg has never been an incredibly comfortable public speaker, in recent years he’s markedly improved. However the CEO took a few significant steps backward when early on in Tuesday’s keynote he lightheartedly joked about Facebook’s privacy issues. “I know we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly,” he chuckled. Zuckerberg appeared to pause and wait for audience laughter, which never came.

Influencers will be able to sell directly on Instagram

Instagram is expanding its shopping tools and will soon include the option for creators and influencers to sell their products directly to followers. Items for sale will be tagged in posts so users can simply click and purchase, all within a single Instagram photo. The tool is still in beta, but it’s a significant move forward. Currently only businesses can tag products and sell them, and the ability for individuals to do so is a major shift, and one that could make scamming even easier. Influencers using Instagram to hock products that either don’t exist or aren’t even close to worth their price tag is quickly becoming a cliché, and removing purchasing hurdles between these sorts of sellers and their devoted followers could make the platform more susceptible to bad business practices.

Facebook wants you to Meet New Friends

Minutes after proclaiming Facebook’s new focus on privacy, the social network introduced this tool. Meet New Friends is similar to the existing People You May Know feature, but will also suggest adding total strangers, as well. The idea is that Meet New Friends can be useful for someone who’s recently moved, switched schools, or is away from home for a while. It’s opt-in, thankfully. Still, People You May Know is an oft-mocked, obnoxious prompt that most users ignore entirely. It’s also been a source of criticism for its creepy factor and its intrusiveness. In no world did Facebook need to evolve that algorithm into one that introduces users to strangers from their workplaces and schools.