Chatbots may be the next thing in social media, depending on how well they work.

On Tuesday at the FaceBook F8 conference in San Francisco, the social media giant announced plans for bots that, ideally, would allow live, human-like interaction via its Messenger app.

So, what are bots and, more specifically, chatbots? A bot is software that automates tasks. That can mean anything from a shopping bot that combs retailer sites for bargains, to spambots that harvest email addresses. Twitter already has a long list of bots, ranging from one that sends auto-reply tweets to correct misspellings, to a bot that responds to complex queries in simple English.

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Chatbots— in theory at least— allow questions to be asked in plain English and then respond using artificial intelligence (AI) or a combination of AI and humans. Chatbots are typically found inside messaging apps, and make an attempt to mimic the kind of back and forth you would have with a human.

The trend that Facebook and others are trying to grapple with is the growing popularity of messaging services and their potential to integrate a variety of bots, obviating the need for separate apps. A 2015 Nielsen analysis found that on average, U.S. smartphone users’ app usage has plateaued and that over 70 percent of total app usage is coming from only 200 apps. In other words, app usage is stagnating while messaging services like WeChat are offering features typically done via apps, like bank and credit card transactions.

Facebook bot push

Facebook’s Messenger has about 900 million users who send about 60 billion messages a day using Messenger and Whatsapp, also owned by Facebook.

To tap into that large pool of users, Facebook on Tuesday launched a beta version of the Messenger platform which offers a set of APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces, that allows developers to create their own chatbots.

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"Our early tests in 2015 with brands are showing that interactions will happen more and more in your Messenger threads,” David Marcus, Facebook’s vice president of messaging products, wrote earlier this year.

On Tuesday, Marcus expanded on this. “Bots can provide anything from automated subscription content like weather and traffic updates, to customized communications like receipts, shipping notifications, and live automated messages all by interacting directly with the people who want to get them,” he said.

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“Starting today, all developers and businesses will have access to documents to build bots for Messenger, and submit them for review. We will gradually accept and approve submissions to ensure the best experiences for everyone on Messenger,” he added.