Photo by Austin Distel
Messenger’s onboarding is a great case study of manipulative design
tl;dr: to install Messenger without enabling notifications, giving Facebook your phone number, or giving Facebook access to your contacts, you have to refuse 6 times via deliberately inconspicuous links.
Step 1: Login
This should be pretty straightforward. I have a Facebook account already, I use Messenger on desktop. I’ve had Messenger on my phone before. So I should be back in Messenger in no time.
Step 2: Enable Notifications, Refusal 1
Ah yeah, notifications. It is a messaging app after all, so it seems fair to ask me once to enable notifications. I tap ‘Don’t Allow’. But this should be the last step, right? Then I can go and start messaging my friends?
Step 3: Add Phone Number, Refusal 1
Not quite. I’m now being asked for my phone number.
Why? Facebook gives a few reasons:
‘Reset your password easily.’ Not a great reason. I’ve never had trouble with that. Facebook has my email address, after all, so I can always reset via email.
‘Find friends.’ I’m not sure how giving my phone number will enable that. Even if it does, I have many ways of telling my friends about Messenger, if that’s something I ever feel like doing.
‘See relevant ads, receive SMS notifications and more.’ There we go. If I give Facebook my phone number, they’ll be able to match my Facebook account to my WhatsApp account, and to customer databases uploaded by advertisers who are using my phone number in a similarly dubious way. And as a bonus, they’ll be able to SMS me about random crap.
I decide I don’t want to give Facebook my phone number. But hey, that blue button is really big and inviting. AND Facebook has somehow pre-filled my phone number and country code (where did they get it from?). AND I can’t find any option to say no!
Ah, wait. There it is. A small link at the bottom of the screen saying ‘Not Now’, in grey. In other words, barely visible. I tap it.
Step 4: Add Phone Number, Refusal 2
Looks like Facebook didn’t believe me when I tapped ‘Not Now’. A window comes up, with Cancel in bold — tricking me into thinking it’s the default/recommended choice. I have to concentrate quite hard to not just select that.
At this point, I think about Messenger’s first promotional screenshot on the App Store, which says ‘Message anyone, no number needed’.
That might be the case in theory, when it sounds good for marketing — but in practice, Facebook has now forced me to refuse twice to not give it my number.
I tap continue, wondering if now I’ll finally be in Messenger.
Step 5: Add Contacts, Refusal 1
Nope. Now Facebook wants my contacts. A creepy cartoon adorns a notice that giving Facebook all of my contacts will help them to ‘provide and improve ads for [me] and others’.
Once again, there’s no option to say no, and the ‘Not Now’ link is much less appealing and prominent than the big blue ‘Turn On’ button.
I tap ‘Not Now’.
Step 6: Add Contacts, Refusal 2
Same drill. Facebook doesn’t believe me, and a window pops up with ‘Cancel’ in bold.
I tap ‘Continue’.
Success! I’m in Messenger, for an instant.
Step 7: Enable Notifications, Refusal 2
But seconds later, as I’m about to message a friend, a black screen loads over everything. Looks like Facebook’s not going to let me get away that easily.
‘Please Turn On Notifications.’
Instructions on how to do this are above a big blue button that will take me to my Settings to make the change.
As always, there’s no way to say ‘no’. The best I can go for is ‘Remind me later’, even though I don’t want to be reminded later.
7 steps and 6 refusals later, I’m in Messenger.
What this tells us about Facebook
Warning: prepare for your mind to not be blown. Most of the points below are already common knowledge about Facebook. I’m rehashing them here in the context of the clear examples that Messenger’s onboarding gives us for each one.
1. Facebook doesn’t care about what you want. You will give it your data, and if you don’t want to, Facebook will keep asking until you do want to.
2. Facebook knows that manipulative design works. They’ll have A/B tested every step above, changed that first ‘Not Now’ link from blue to grey, and realised that this results in an X% increase in phone numbers harvested. That finding is on a PowerPoint slide somewhere in Facebook HQ.
3. Facebook’s dishonesty extends to language. The design omits the word ‘No’ completely, and instead forces the user to submit a half-assed ‘Not now’, or ‘Remind me later’.
4. Facebook is not sincere about privacy, despite their PR fluff to the contrary. They are asking for all this data (your phone number, your contacts) that won’t make the experience of the app much better for most users, but which they want because it’s good for their business model. More tellingly, even once a user tells them they don’t want to give that data, Facebook second-guesses them. Would an organisation that cared deeply about privacy second-guess a user who already said they don’t want to hand over their data?
5. Facebook is able to act with impunity in areas like Messenger’s onboarding because of a government failure to regulate. Imagine if there was a law termed ‘the right of single refusal’, stipulating that apps may only ask once to enable notifications or get your data.
Bonus section 1: this, as an absurd conversation
Here’s what it would have been like if instead of tapping silently through screens, I was talking to a personified version of Messenger.
Messenger: ‘Log in!’
Messenger: ‘I’d like to send you notifications.’
Me: ‘No thanks. Fair enough though, you are a messaging app after all.’
Messenger: ‘Add your phone number. This is not a question, it’s an order. It’ll be good for you because [bla bla bla], and I’ll be able to serve you more ads, making me more money.’
Me: ‘No thanks.’
Messenger: ‘There is no option for ‘No thanks’.’
Messenger [quietly, under its breath]: ‘You can say ‘Not Now’ if you really must, but I don’t recommend it.’
Me: ‘Um…OK…not now.’
Messenger: ‘Ah. Are you sure about that? Please tell me again that you don’t want this.’
Me: ‘I really don’t.’
Messenger: ‘OK, whatever. Moving on. Upload your contacts. Again, just to be clear, this is not a question, it’s an order.’
Me: ‘Again, no thanks.’
Messenger [mumbling]: ‘Again, you can’t say no thanks. You have to say ‘Not Now’, which is not the same as no thanks because it means I’m perfectly entitled to ask you again.’
Me: ‘But I don’t want you to ask me again. OK, whatever. Not now.’
Messenger: ‘You sure? Remember, you have to tell me these things twice otherwise I won’t understand.’
Me: ‘I’m sure.’
I finally make it into the Messenger app and I’m just about to start messaging a friend when…
Messenger [holding a huge black sheet in front of my face which stops me from seeing or doing anything else]: ‘HEY! Please turn on notifications. That’s kind of an order. I can’t get you to do this in one tap any more, so instead I’d like you to go over to your Settings where you’ll be able to enable Notifications.’
Me: ‘You already asked me once about this, which was pretty fair because you’re a messaging app. Now you’re asking me again? Even after I went through that whole process with the other stuff I don’t want, all of which you asked me twice about? I’m gonna have to say ‘No thanks’.’
Messenger: ‘Jeez, man. What have I told you about saying ‘no’? Don’t you understand? Facebook doesn’t give you ‘no’. There’s no ‘no’ with Facebook. For Facebook, ‘no’ means ‘sorry, that option doesn’t exist’. OK, look. I like you. So what I’m going to do is let you ask me to ‘Remind you later’. That’s your only way out.
Me: ‘I don’t want you to remind me later. If I remember later, I’ll just go and do it myself.’
Messenger: ‘Dem’s the rules.’
Me [sighing]: ‘Remind me later’
Messenger: ‘Excellent choice, sir! Come on in!’
Bonus section 2: Editors’ Choice
Messenger is listed on the App Store UK as ‘Editors’ Choice’, with some fancy laurels on either side of the label.
That’s weird. Why has Apple chosen Messenger as ‘Editors’ Choice’, not some other messaging app?
Here’s a quick look at some other messaging apps on the App Store:
Source: App Annie.
Signal is great at privacy, and rated higher than Messenger. WhatsApp is better at privacy than Messenger, and rated higher, with far more reviews.
But Apple has chosen to promote the worse-reviewed and worse-at-privacy app, a decision which has a large bearing on the messaging app choice of millions.
Does Facebook have some kind of agreement with Apple to get the ‘Editors’ Choice’ label on Messenger, which Facebook wants to promote more than WhatsApp because it gathers more data and includes advertising?
That seems plausible. Whatever the real reason, Apple’s decision to give ‘Editors’ Choice’ to Messenger is both dubious and hypocritical, given what we now know about Facebook’s approach to privacy and given Apple’s claims to be the big tech company that cares most about privacy.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this article, you might like my browser extension, Nudge, which lets you delete your Facebook News Feed, and makes the internet less addictive.