How Facebook Messenger bots are driving social change around the world
You could say Facebook Messenger was once the social network's most loathed feature. In 2014, the company forced users to download a separate app if they wanted to send and receive messages on their phones, and as a result, Messenger rose to No. 1 in the App Store—but with a dismal one-star rating.
Fast forward three years, and you still need to download the app (sorry). But Messenger has evolved, updated with shiny new features, a discover tab, advanced functionality, and a streamlined desktop version. And while it isn't perfect, it has become something none of us expected: an actual force for social good around the globe.
Facebook Messenger has emerged as an important platform for a bevy of developers, humanitarians, and activists to create bots focused on real impact, all leveraging artificial intelligence and Messenger's 1.2 billion-strong user base to tackle inequality and the world's most pressing problems.
Facebook opened up the Messenger platform to developers last year, and since then more than 100,000 unique bots have been created. You can't help but notice the recent surge of social good among them—whether it's a bot helping new activists find local protests in the Trump era, connecting refugees with translators in real time, coaching women through salary negotiations, and even encouraging talks about mental health.
It's a trend Facebook itself has noticed, and that the company is encouraging.
"I think it's kind of obvious when you're at Facebook that any time there's a human impact factor... our heart races a little bit faster here on the team," said Anand Chandrasekaran, Facebook's global director of platform and product partnerships for Messenger.
"A lot of us are really committed to the purpose and mission that Facebook stands for, and any time that mission can be used to empower a change creator or an activist or a humanitarian or just someone who wants to do some good around their community," he said.
That's in line with many of the social media giant's recent efforts. Over the past year, Facebook's Social Good team has launched several community-focused products like fundraisers and the Community Help tool, and in February, CEO Mark Zuckerberg published a 6,000-word manifesto all about the company's mission to "build global community."
Messenger takes that even further. Everyday people can now take the technology and massive audience into their own hands, not just building communities, but actively helping vulnerable ones.
That's exactly what Atif Javed and his team of fellow MIT graduates are doing. Javed, an engineer and product manager based in Silicon Valley, is the cofounder of Tarjimly, a bot that connects refugees and immigrants with translators in real time. The goal is to break down language barriers, ultimately connecting refugees to doctors, aid workers, legal help, and other crucial services in Arabic, Farsi, and Pashto as they resettle in a new country.
Since it launched four months ago, Tarjimly has brought on more than 2,200 translators and more than 15 partner organizations. It was even featured in a keynote at Facebook's F8 conference in April as an example of the power bots can hold.
Javed said the aid workers Tarjimly has worked with all love the idea of being on Messenger. They like being able to send audio notes and pictures, and it's something both refugees and aid workers are used to. Many refugees have smartphones, already using SMS texting and apps like Facebook and WhatsApp.
"I think that's the big benefit of these platforms—it's where people already live," Javed said. "It's where they're already spending so much of their time, that it makes sense for them to be able to use that service."
He and his cofounders had made bots for Facebook Messenger before and knew it would ease the process for people who wanted to register for the service, rather than forcing them to adopt a separate app.
"It's nice, because you can just add in users quickly and test them and get people to use it, as opposed to having to have a long lead cycle between iterations of different versions. You can just see what went wrong and then you can go quickly make a fix," he said.
Tarjimly isn't alone in taking on a huge issue like the global refugee crisis through Messenger. UNICEF's U-Report, an early example of a Messenger bot launched in August 2016, allows young people around the world to answer weekly questions on issues that affect them. UNICEF chose Messenger because it wanted to tap into the youth demographic in order to advocate for children's rights, noting that young people are more likely to engage on channels they're already using.
There's also DoNotPay, which was created by Stanford student and developer Joshua Browder. Originally meant to help people get out of parking tickets, the app expanded to help homeless and evicted people fight for housing, as well as offer free legal aid to refugees struggling with asylum applications in the U.S., Canada, and the UK.
Browder plans to launch a dozen new services in the future, to help low-income communities and other users with things like pensions, benefits, and bail.
But you don't need to be a big organization like UNICEF, or an engineer or developer like Javed and Browder, to come up with a social good bot idea on Messenger.
You might even work at an ad agency, like Kate Carter.
Carter, who's a senior copywriter at R/GA, "never would have thought in a million years" that she'd be working in the tech space, making bots. She's now the brains behind the Ask for a Raise bot, which mimics British entrepreneur and former advertising exec Cindy Gallop to help women get the raises they deserve.
Ahead of Equal Pay Day earlier this year, Carter and her team found out that women were 25 percent less likely to get a raise than men. So they asked themselves, "How can we equip women with all the information that they need to get a raise?"
"We were really looking for an insight that we could attack head-on, and build a utility that actually created a way for women to change that insight almost immediately—to take action upon using it," Carter said.
The idea to create a Messenger bot didn't come to mind immediately. She first thought of showcasing Gallop—who had the give-no-fucks attitude the campaign needed—while she had Skype conversations with women. But Carter felt that idea didn't have enough impact.
"The question was, how do we scale her? And a chatbot just became the best way to do that, to scale her on a global level," she said.
So she teamed up with Brad Jacobson, senior experience strategist at R/GA. Carter and Jacobson previously worked together to develop GoVoteBot, a chatbot that helped people with voter registration during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The goal with Ask for a Raise was a bit different, however, because they wanted to scale one-to-one conversations using an authentic personality. Carter describes it as "creating a conversation between two women that gives you both what you're looking for."
And that's true, in a sense. Carter wrote a script for the bot, imitating Gallop's words (like how often the British mogul says "bloody" on Twitter) and paying close attention to punctuation ("There's nothing more human than the way in which someone punctuates," Carter said).
Carter and Jacobson continued iterating over time, looking at how people interacted with the bot and accounting for responses they weren't prepared for. They both agree that chatbots aren't just useful because they automate processes—they're perfect for personal moments. Bots remove an "embarrassment factor" that could otherwise impede social progress, like equal pay in the workplace.
"It's just you and this conversation interface, where you don't have to divulge salary numbers, when you know you can get smart data back privately," Jacobson said.
The role of third-party, do-it-yourself development platforms for Messenger is crucial. Jacobson and Carter used Reply.ai, an R/GA client, to build Ask for a Raise, while UNICEF used RapidPro for U-Report. There are other popular platforms on the market, like Chatfuel and Meya, which help people build bots quickly, letting them focus on the content, rather than get caught up in the coding. That's especially helpful when your bot's content is supposed to change the world.
"What we're finding is that there is a really healthy third-party bot developer ecosystem on top of Messenger," Chandrasekaran, of Facebook, said. "And usually that's a great sign that developers are embracing the platform."
Javed and his cofounders built Tarjimly on their own, but Messenger made it easier to make the bot work, and to make the product they wanted, instead of building all of the communication infrastructure from scratch.
"I would say like 75 percent of the work, for sure, is taken care of by Messenger," Javed said.
It also creates a direct pipeline for feedback. There's no need to wait for reviews or help requests, as many issues and bugs will reveal themselves in the chats. In terms of positive feedback, users are on Facebook already, sharing public screenshots of the bots and how they've helped them. One user of Ask for a Raise shared an anecdote with R/GA about how, after using this bot, she walked into her boss' office and got the raise she deserved.
But Messenger is by no means perfect. Javed, for example, wants better analytics, the ability to test bots first, and a much quicker approval process. He's also noticed some bugs with the messaging center. Meanwhile, as a designer, Jacobson wants more functionality and flexibility with Messenger buttons and in manipulating how a user can interact with a bot.
This kind of feedback is important for Chandrasekaran, who's been at Facebook for five releases of Messenger's developer platform.
"The developers that have been successful, which is true of the platform in general but particularly in social good and humanitarian good, is that they embrace that it's a living, breathing platform," he says. "We listen very intently to what developers are telling us."
Perfect or not, Messenger definitely gets developers into the space faster and with more visibility than if they were to, say, create an app instead. Some have even likened Messenger to an app killer.
"We initially brainstormed this on a custom thing [and thought], will we have control over it? Will it be good enough? What if people don't use Messenger and they don't want to download Messenger?" Javed says about Tarjimly. "But I was like, what are we going to do? Build our own app and go in the App Store with another million apps? It's not worth it."
"App killer" is debatable, but you could at least see Messenger as a bridge for bigger things. Javed, for one, wants to turn Tarjimly into a full business with social good in its DNA. He envisions it being "the future of person-to-person translation," not just for refugees, but also for lawyers, journalists, or even if someone wants to travel to a different country. Messenger, then, could be the birthplace of countless companies with positive social impact at their core.
It goes for individuals, too. That's true for Carter, who says if you have an idea for a bot that can truly make a difference in people's lives, or really any Messenger bot at all, don't be afraid to start.
"Finding myself in this space and not only understanding it, but pushing the boundaries of it, has been really interesting," she says. "It goes to show that anyone is capable of doing it. It's just, do you have the heart and the hard work to figure it out?"