Of Course Facebook Will Want Your Credit Card -- And Of Course, You'll Give It To Them

Published in Online Spin, April 15, 2016.

I’m at the counter and I’ve just ordered my coffee. “That’ll be five bucks,” says the lady at the register. I hold my credit card to the machine for a second or two, it beeps, and I turn to go.

“You use that system?” my friend asks, dubiously. “You bet,” I say. “It’s amazing what I’ll do to save a few seconds.” It’s something I only noticed once I started using Uber: the startling feeling of luxury and sense of satisfaction I get from arriving at my destination and simply emerging from the vehicle like a movie star at the Oscars. No pedestrian wallet-fumbling for me, thanks. My people have it covered.

Uber’s value propositions are pricing and convenience, and a big part of that convenience is having your credit card on file with them. How long does it take to swipe your credit card in a conventional taxi? 45 seconds? It’s not much, but how STOKED are you when you pull up -- at the airport, say, where your flight departure is imminent, or to your date’s house, where you’re desperately trying to make a good impression, or to that big meeting with the time-starved CEO that you’ve been waiting a year to lock down -- and you don’t need to worry about those 45 seconds?

Offerings like Seamless and Amazon Prime Now are testament to our collective love affair with convenience. It’s why we choose fast food over good health and “admin123” over security. We are incredibly lazy creatures, and anything that allows us to be that tiny bit more lazy is gratefully welcomed.

So here come Facebook’s chatbots, launched this week, tailor-made to press every instant gratification button we’ve got. We save time when AI gets better at understanding our needs. We feel more important when we can just ask “someone” for something and it appears. And -- let's face it -- we'll be on Facebook at the moment of purchase anyway, since we’re pretty much always on Facebook. So convenient.

There’s just one tiny problem: the chatbots are terrible. Gizmodo calls them “frustrating and useless,” and commenters by and large agree, with one saying, “Why is this a thing? …If I want to buy something, I open my browser and buy the thing. This is just such pointless shit.”

They may well be right: Today, the chatbots are pointless. But 20 years ago, that same commenter could have said, “Why is the Internet a thing? If I want to buy something, I just go to the store and buy it.” It’s a mistake to judge the future potential of technology by its current performance.

The chatbots will get better. They will get more sophisticated. And soon, they will sell you whatever you want, so seamlessly that it won’t even feel like you bought something.

Over here, your wish was granted. Over here, the balance on your credit card just went a little higher. The two events barely seem to connect, but that’s the best way to sell stuff: make us forget that we’re spending money at all.

But right now, we get reminded that we’re spending. Facebook doesn’t allow you to add a credit card to Messenger so you can make payments directly. You have to go to a company’s website to process your order.

Let me get this straight: I have to leave Messenger? To go to a website? To enter payment information? Seriously, guys, what a pain in the ass. How come you can’t be more like Uber and just charge my card?