On Tuesday, April 30, Facebook will kick off F8, its two-day annual developers conference. The company’s executives will take the stage to detail their latest virtual reality ambitions and blockchain adventures and News Feed tweaks. But before we talk about what to expect, let’s take a moment to reflect on what should take center stage.
In the past year, Facebook has been caught intentionally tricking minors into making in-app purchases and denying refunds, paying kids as young as 13 to let Facebook spy on everything they do online, and blocking tools designed to increase ad transparency. Actually, sorry, all of that was a single week in January.
A wider aperture doesn’t help. In October, Facebook disclosed that hackers had spent over a year inside its systems, compromising 30 million accounts. Its platform has played a role in genocide and a mass shooting. It apparently expects an FTC fine well into the billions for privacy violations, orders of magnitude larger than the previous record holder and yet barely a littering ticket for a company of Facebook’s size.
And yes, this sounds hard to believe, but the Cambridge Analytica news had barely broken when F8 rolled around last year. All of those trips to Congress, all that dissembling and dodging and general malarky? All the chaos and complacency and further revelations of an aggressive disregard for user privacy? That’s all in the last 15 months. Crazy, right?
So while below is what you can expect to see, know that Facebook owes you more than a look at what’s new with Oculus, or a look under the hood of whatever stablecoin they’re building in the garage. It could fill a week with keynotes detailing not just what went wrong, but why, and what if any meaningful steps it will take to fix its systemic problems (if they can even be fixed at a 2.3-billion-user scale).
Expect at least some focus on privacy, likely along the lines of what CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said repeatedly: a muted apology, and a push toward groups, private sharing, and encryption. Otherwise, expect to see some combination of the below. And if you’re looking for a drinking game, take a shot every time you hear “we need to do better.”
Privacy, Encryption, and AI
Here’s where you can expect to actually hear something about user privacy, although there’s a catch. In January, Zuckerberg heralded his intention to combine messaging across Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger, creating an end-to-end encrypted chimera by sometime next year.
“I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services,” Zuckerberg repeated in an earnings call Wednesday. Which sounds good! But there are also so many ways it could go wrong. Will Facebook use the connective tissue between apps to link a person’s identity across multiple platforms? Will the company make explicitly clear when a message is encrypted and when it’s not? (Instagram, for instance, currently offers no encrypted option.) And given the at times devastating social repercussions of WhatsApps’s end-to-end encryption—in India especially, runaway and untraceable fake news has helped contribute to senseless violence—has Facebook really considered the ramifications of expanding it at this scale? Or is the company simply tired of being yelled at for its content moderation failures, and using encryption as an escape hatch?
In a similar vein, expect an update on Facebook’s algorithmic enforcement efforts, and how successful artificial intelligence has gotten at stopping problematic posts before they're published on the platform in the first place. (Although the company probably shouldn't count on AI to solve everything.)
It's also worth noting that this will be the first F8 since the departure of Chris Cox, Facebook's former head of product, who left the company earlier this year—reportedly at least in part over the direction Zuckerberg wants to take his platforms.
Oculus Updates and AR
Last year, Facebook used F8 to launch Oculus Go, its mobile VR headset. Oculus already announced its next big product, the standalone Quest, at its own developer conference last fall. It also already detailed the PC-powered Rift S last month. Still, you can expect at the very least a recap of Facebook’s impending virtual reality hardware, and maybe even an actual launch date, which both headsets currently lack.
Plan on seeing plenty of augmented reality as well, likely as part of updates to Instagram and the main Facebook app. The company has 10 panels scheduled over two days focused on helping developers get the most out of Spark AR Studio, a suite of tools to create camera-based effects. While consumer adoption is still spotty, everyone from Apple to Google to Facebook continues to fight for dominance of the impending mirrorworld in which our phones and mind-goggles will ensnare us. Fun times!
In truth, F8 often lacks a marquee moment. This is a developer's conference, after all. As such, the bulk of Tuesday and Wednesday will likely focus on refinements and advancements of projects already well in motion. Don't be surprised to hear a whole lot about Messenger, for instance, especially given how many breakout sessions Facebook has dedicated to the platform. (And within that, expect a strong emphasis on improvements to how businesses, not humans, use it.)
As for the big blue app itself, expect executives to start shading in Zuck's big-picture outline for the future, with specifics on what exactly that push toward group interactions looks like in practice. Facebook Dating and Facebook Marketplace and Facebook Watch all seem jonesing for a refresh or a fresh push.
And while it's not clear how fully baked Facebook's impending voice assistant is, F8 would be a natural place to spill more information about it, and possibly any updates to Portal, the company's video chat hardware.
You'll also hear about Facebook Stories, because Facebook will talk about Stories until either everyone Stories everything all the time or the world turns to ash, whichever comes first.
Last year, Facebook underwent a dramatic reorganization, much of which centered around the company’s nascent blockchain efforts. More recently, reports have emerged from the New York Times and others that the company is working on a so-called stablecoin, a type of cryptocurrency whose value is baked by real-world money.
That’s about all we know, and it’s extremely unclear whether any of Facebook’s blockchain efforts are ready for the main stage. But don’t be surprised if you get some sort of update, given how many resources the company has put into them so far.