Not even your private messages are safe from the scourge of autoplay ads.
On Tuesday, Recode reported that Facebook plans to begin selling video ads inside its Messenger app. This isn’t the first time commercial interests have encroached on the once-pristine space of the Messenger inbox. Though messaging can feel like a private utility that shouldn’t include ads, that ship has long since sailed—Facebook has been selling static ads on Messenger for 18 months now. Video ads are more likely to be intrusive, but they also fetch higher prices from advertisers, so it makes business sense that the company would make a move to test these waters.
It makes less sense from a user perspective, though. “The big question: Do users want to see video ads next to their private messages?” Recode’s post asks. The answer to that question would seem to be a resounding no. Though Slate’s Will Oremus has argued that Facebook deserves credit for improving on some of the autoplay video’s most exasperating features, the fact remains that, if presented with the choice between watching an ad and not watching an ad, why would anyone choose the former?
Let’s think for a second about who uses Messenger and how. Facebook’s large network of users means that Messenger is frequently the most convenient way to get in touch with someone for whom you lack other contact information, like an email address or phone number. The fact that there’s often no viable alternative gives the service the power to stuff itself full of as many ads as it wants. But to imply that these autoplay ads won’t degrade the user experience, as a Facebook executive did to Recode (“from a beachside cabana at the Cannes Lions advertising festival,” no less) is a farce.
Facebook can try to make money however it wants, but it’s ridiculous to suggest that video ads that play automatically within your DMs will make using Messenger anything but slower, less smooth, and more frustrating. Sure, we’ll be rewarded with continued access to a free messaging service, but that doesn’t mean we won’t resent it. Luckily, users who want to send private messages can turn to any of a number of competing services for their communication needs. Less luckily, two of the most robust messaging alternatives, WhatsApp and Instagram, happen to be owned by, you guessed it, Facebook.
Update, June 19, 2:30 p.m.: After this piece was published, a Messenger representative emailed the following statement:
As we shared with advertisers at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, we are now expanding the availability of video ads to Messenger. We will be rolling out video ads gradually and thoughtfully. People that use Messenger each month are our top priority and they will remain in control of their experience.