Mike Isaac

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With Messenger App Update, Facebook Aims to Inch Further Into Your Phone

facebook_messenger_peopleForget the White Pages. Facebook is beginning to look a whole lot more like a phone book.

That’s regarding the company’s forthcoming Messenger app update, which aims to further make itself a part of how consumers use their smartphones for messaging on a regular basis.

The biggest change is one that Facebook likely hopes all will use often: Using Facebook to contact people you aren’t connected to on Facebook.

The new version of the app will allow users to send Facebook messages to other people — even if they aren’t friends on Facebook — as long as the recipient’s phone number is in the sender’s smartphone address book.

This is all contingent on handing over quite a bit of information to Facebook. Upon downloading the update, Facebook will ask you to verify your phone number, adding that info to your Timeline (set, by default, so that only you can see it). It will also scan your phone’s address book (with your permission), searching the phone numbers of people you know, so that you’ll be able to send Facebook messages to them.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, after you’ve verified your phone number, other Facebook users who have your phone number will be able to look you up via your phone number, as long as they are using the Messenger app.

Facebook carefully positions the move as a way to better connect mobile device users who want to stay in close touch via Facebook messaging.

“For the mobile-to-mobile experience, it’s important that we’re fast, reliable and dependable,” Facebook product manager Peter Martinazzi said in an interview.

More than that, however, it is yet another extension of Facebook’s push into establishing itself as an identity service, one where everyone is searchable and reachable through Facebook. Last year, Facebook began the shift so that all users profile would be searchable, a change completed earlier this month.

Facebook’s caveat here is that only users who have one anothers’ phone numbers can send messages to each other, a extension of the platform that could be seen as natural if you already share real-world contact info but are not Facebook friends.

But it is also typical Facebook, prodding the boundaries of who can connect to whom, while increasingly growing the size and scope of users’ networks. Facebook has learned from its past mistakes: Instead of making sweeping overnight changes to its network, slow, gradual rollouts are more often received by the public with less hostility.

I imagine, too, that the assumption is that it’s more likely that you’ll add a user to your network of friends if you’re able to message them on Facebook.

Most of the other obvious tweaks, which will roll out first in a limited test to some Android devices, appear mostly in the new aesthetic updates. You’ll notice that the app looks a whole lot like any other Android app, conforming to the flourishes and design conventions established by Google’s Android team. (It’s basically a dead ringer for some of Android’s built-in texting and dialing apps.)

There’s also the added badge on contact avatars which signifies whether people are using Facebook on the desktop only, or if they’re also using Messenger. That, like messaging “read” receipts, could prompt users for faster and more continuous communications between one another.

Expect the test to roll out to Android users over the coming weeks, with iPhone to come shortly thereafter in a wider release.

And be sure to check those permissions that Facebook asks for — because it’ll be asking for quite a lot.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald