Facebook Messenger isn't just for getting hit on by people you went to high school with anymore. On Wednesday the company announced an experimental new feature that could someday make Messenger much more useful.
M is something like a combination of TaskRabbit and Google Now: a digital personal assistant that relies on a combination of automated and human labor to help make busy lives easier via digital communication. M can make you a doctor's appointment or tell you where to go hike for the weekend — but it can also book your dinner reservations, order a birthday gift for your dad, or help you plan a party. Simply message M — a faceless, identity-less chat contact — as you would a friend, and voila! Facebook announced the product today but is rolling it out gradually across a select number of Bay Area users, according to Wired.
But unlike similar products, M doesn't evoke a person or a character. Apple has Siri, the feminine-voiced and -named natural language processing feature that comes standard on all devices. Amazon has Alexa, a "cloud-based voice service" that comes installed on Echo devices, which can control anything from the lights in your home to the music on your stereo. And Microsoft named Cortana, its answer to Siri, after a female character in the Halo video game:
The fact that the designers and engineers who have built these products across tech companies have so frequently opted to give them feminine characteristics has not gone without notice, in the press and in academia. The popularity of the film Her – in which the protagonist, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with his operating system "Samantha," voiced by Scarlett Johansson — also brought some some attention to the issue of how digital labor is gendered. The first interaction in the film between Phoenix and his soon-to-be paramour involves her offering to sort through his email inbox for him.
Many have suggested that virtual assistants are often designed to evoke women because they replace a job — secretary — that has historically been held by women. And because these jobs are about helping other people complete tasks, they tend to be unseen and underappreciated — they constitute what is sometimes called "invisible labor." Because of this, they also tend to be underpaid.
Facebook designed M as an entity rather than a person; visually, M is no more than a symbol, and it doesn't talk. In doing so, the company has — whether by happenstance or deliberately — decoupled gender from assistantship. But it hasn't decoupled lower wages from this type of work: As reported by Wired and confirmed by Facebook, the M "trainers" — the "human" part of the service, of whom there are a few dozen and who work at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park — are not employees of the company, but contractors, meaning they are paid hourly and lack the benefits and protections of employees, making them a more flexible, more disposable workforce.
Tech companies, like many employers, regularly use contract labor to cut costs, but lately the industry has been under fire for abusing the practice by both the press and the labor movement. Last week, the Teamsters celebrated a victory when Google Express workers — the drivers who make deliveries for the company and are contracted through Adecco — voted to organize. Facebook did not divulge how much its contractors are being paid, or what the gender breakdown of that team is.
Most people don't have secretaries. That's because hiring someone to do your chores — whether virtual or otherwise — for you is not something most people can afford. Why Facebook would offer this service for free, when plenty of other companies have business models based off of charging for this service, is a bit of a mystery. Of course, it's an opportunity for Facebook to flex its artificial intelligence muscles for consumers, and stay abreast of Google, Apple, and other industry leaders in the public eye.
But it also provides Facebook with a very specific and highly valuable subset of data. The company already knows a staggering amount about you: who you talk to and what you talk about online, as well as where you went to school, where you live, what movies and books you like, etc. With M, Facebook will also be collecting and storing information about where you go to dinner, what you bought your niece for her birthday, and how much you're willing to spend on concert tickets. While the company isn't selling that data to third parties right now, there's no doubt that the better an automated assistant serves you, the more it has to know about you. There's no such thing as a free secretary.
Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Caroline O’Donovan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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