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1 big thing: Facebook's plan for one messaging app to rule them all

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Facebook’s decision to unite the technical guts of its three giant messaging services could not only cement its dominance of instant messaging but also help fend off future break-up attempts by antitrust cops, Axios' Scott Rosenberg and David McCabe report.

Why it matters: The effort to unite the back-end technology that runs Instagram, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp is more than just an engineering call.

  • It will bring together users of all three apps in a single network, database and community — enabling new features and opening the door to even more anticompetitive challenges, privacy troubles and social conflicts.

Driving the news: As New York Times' Mike Isaac reported, and Facebook confirmed to Axios, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has decided to integrate the back-end infrastructures so that users of all three can directly message one another. The plan is still early and exploratory, according to Facebook.

Why it matters, for Facebook's business:

  • Reorganizing the codebases for Facebook's messaging services so that they are essentially one application with three different interfaces could make it much harder for a court or regulator to order a breakup of Facebook's properties, as some critics are proposing.
  • In its antitrust case 20 years ago, Microsoft famously argued that even though its web browser was originally a separate application, the browser's code had become too deeply entwined with the Windows operating system to remove.
  • Microsoft lost that argument, but Facebook's lawyers and developers may be able to learn from its predecessor's mistakes.

Why it matters, for privacy on Facebook:

  • Zuckerberg has decided that all of the services should protect users' messages with end-to-end encryption by default, currently offered only on WhatsApp, according to the Times report.
  • Encryption can be a boon to users fearful of surveillance or who want to protect their personal data from commercial abuse.

Why it matters, for Facebook users:

  • When Facebook acquired Instagram (2012) and WhatsApp (2014), it said it would keep both services running separately under their original leadership. But the founders of both companies departed last year.

My thought bubble: Many users of Instagram and WhatsApp don't realize they're on Facebook-owned turf. Linking the services will tie their public images to Facebook's, which has taken a beating.

The bottom line: Facebook has always aimed to define and map the "social graph" of humanity. It was only a matter of time before Instagram and WhatsApp users were added to that graph.

Go deeper: Read their full story here.

2. StoryCorps aims to counter online polarization

The StoryCorps recording booth in Grand Central Terminal. Photo: Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis via Getty Images

StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, who has spent a large part of his career facilitating conversations between individuals in person, tells David that the way large online platforms has transformed discourse “scares the s--- out of me.”

The big picture: Since its 2003 founding, StoryCorps has recorded conversations between people who know each other — preserving the interactions for posterity.

  • In response to a moment of intense political polarization, it has started to record pairs of individuals from sharply different viewpoints talking with each other about their lives.

Details: Isay describes himself as a limited user of Facebook and Twitter, finding that online platforms have polarized political debate by rewarding frustration and anger with more likes and comments.

  • "On Twitter, it's completely disposable and you're reinforced for being nasty," he told Axios on the sidelines of the Koch political network’s annual winter gathering for hundreds of its top donors.
  • "It's just a self-perpetuating, incredibly dangerous feedback loop," he said, noting that online rage could eventually motivate physical violence.
  • "At StoryCorps, it's the opposite of disposable. It lasts forever, and every instinct is to be your best self," he said.

Isay was featured on an after-dinner panel for donors on Saturday about polarization. A Koch-affiliated foundation is among the funders of the new project, called One Small Step.

  • Isay says the initiative has proven very successful.
  • “My experience in the last 18 months has been that things are worse in the country than we realize, but people are scared and they’re open to trying to fix it,” he said.

What's next: Hundreds of people have participated in One Small Step interviews so far, Isay said, but the organization expects to grow the program significantly.

3. Recharge expands to homes-by-the-minute

Recharge, a San Francisco startup that made headlines a few years ago for offering hotel stays by the minute (for a nap, shower or phone call, the company says), is expanding to offer the same service in people's homes, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

The big picture: Technology has enabled the creation of online marketplaces that segment the use of physical space in new ways — from Airbnb's home-sharing service, to companies like Breather that let you book others' office space for a meeting or call. Even Airbnb recently acquired Gaest, a marketplace for renting out office space.

How it works: Guests in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and New York can book a stay in an available home via Recharge's app just as they would book a visit in one of its hotels.

  • For hosts, Recharge offers two options: a self-managed option, which means the host takes care of the cleaning and gets to keep most of the revenue, and an "autonomous" option, for which Recharge provides the cleaning, but takes a much bigger cut of the fee.
  • Hosts have to apply and be vetted, including providing a copy of their lease if they don't own the home to ensure the service won't violate its terms.
  • Recharge co-founder and CEO Emmanuel Bamfo says that the company's service is legal, even in cities like San Francisco and New York with strict home-sharing laws, because there are no overnight stays.
  • But ultimately, it remains to be seen whether landlords react negatively to Recharge, he admits.

By the numbers: To date, Recharge has had 50,000 bookings, with an average stay of two hours, says Bamfo. It works with 50 hotels and has approved 1,100 homes. Eventually, says Bamfo, Recharge wants to purchase and manage its own hotels to have more flexibility.

Funding: Since raising $2.3 million in seed funding in 2016, Recharge has brought on strategic investors like JetBlue Ventures and Fifth Wall (which has ties to the real estate industry), bringing its total funding to $10 million.

4. Facebook braces for 2019 overseas elections

Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Facebook is building new operations centers and programs around the world that will focus on election integrity and help fight fake news and voter suppression, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Why it matters: The company has not been able to get ahead of constant abuses on its platforms to manipulate elections, drawing ire from regulators that are already wary that the platform is too big to manage itself. 

Facebook said in a blog post this morning that it's ramping up investment in election security around the world, adding fact-checking programs and artificial intelligence, and changing policies.

  • It will launch election transparency tools in India and Ukraine ahead of elections there.
  • It will provide more resources for rapid response in elections in Europe and Asia. 
  • It will set up two new regional operations centers focused on election integrity in its Dublin and Singapore offices.

Read more of Sara's piece.

5. A quick primer on TikTok, in one tweetstorm

It's tough to keep up with all the social media apps, so you are forgiven if you haven't gotten around to checking out TikTok just yet. But, with millions of users in the U.S. (and an estimated 130 million globally, mostly in China), it's probably time to understand what the cool kids are up to.

Background: TikTok is a short video app along the lines of Vine, but with more of a meme and music video bent.

Go deeper: TikTok is cringey and that's fine (The Atlantic)

6. Take Note

On Tap

  • Monday marks the final day of scheduled testimony in the FTC's antitrust case vs. Qualcomm. Closing arguments are slated for Tuesday afternoon.
  • It's a busy week of earnings reports, with Apple, eBay and AMD scheduled to report on Tuesday; Facebook, Microsoft, Qualcomm and PayPal on Wednesday; and, Amazon on Thursday.
  • Today is Data Privacy Day.

ICYMI

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