Facebook is often questioned about American teens abandoning it for apps such as SnapChat, but it turns out that’s not what CEO Mark Zuckerberg is losing sleep over. His bigger concern, he says in a recent interview with The New York Times (paywall), is appealing to the next billion people getting online across the rest of the world.
To that end, Zuckerberg says, he encourages his staff to explore the world outside of the bubble of Silicon Valley:
My life is so different from the person who’s going to be getting Internet in two years. One of the things that we do is ask product managers to go travel to an emerging-market country to see how people who are getting on the Internet use it. They learn the most interesting things. People ask questions like, ‘It says here I’m supposed to put in my password — what’s a password?’ For us, that’s a mind-boggling thing.
Presumably, those globe-trotting product developers are also getting a taste of life without high-speed internet and unlimited mobile data. To develop online products for people in emerging markets, it helps to have actually experienced the limitations on access that they face. (That’s something that Quartz’s Leo Mirani recommends after spending a week with just a mobile connection. The modern internet—with streaming video, crisp photos, and an array of cloud services—just didn’t work for him.)
These insights already seem to be informing Facebook’s strategy. The WhatsApp acquisition, for example, was an acknowledgment that Facebook’s messaging platform won’t work for the whole world. Messenger works better for chatting with friends with abundant mobile data, while WhatsApp helps people stay in touch across countries, whether or not they have the latest smartphones, and serves as an inexpensive replacement for text messages.
Zuckerberg’s staff walkabouts make sense. Both Facebook and Google are trying to expand internet access to a much larger portion of the globe with (even turning to experimental technology such as drones). Once they’re there, these companies will need developers who know what services people new to the internet will actually want to use.