There’s an argument to be made that Facebook built the current social networking era and then Facebook broke it. It succeeded where Friendster and MySpace ultimately failed – at connecting you to all your friends and eventually connecting the world. But therein lies the problem. Soon after friending your college buddies and then your elementary school friends came your mother and then your grandmother, your boss and then industry acquaintances.
Facebook did such a good job of achieving its mission that it started to lose its power as a place to share openly about your life. That failing opened the door for the likes of Snapchat, with its promise of the temporary and the (sort of) private. It also gave anonymous confessional apps like Whisper and Secret an entrée into winning over consumers.
But Mark Zuckerberg isn’t dumb. He knows the next era of social will be something different than what Facebook has to offer, and he has tried desperately to get ahead of that trend — from paying billions for Instagram and WhatsApp to letting his product teams build product ripoffs like Poke (Snapchat) and Slingshot (TapTalk).
Can Facebook bring back the chat room popularity of the nineties?
Thursday that trend takes a turn. Facebook is back in the consumer app inventing game with Rooms, a chatroom mobile application. It harkens back to the 1990s when anonymous chatrooms on AOL — and before that via Internet Relay Chat – were some the earliest forms of online socializing. At the same time, Rooms reinvents the concept for the mobile era, marking finally something new from Facebook after a string of copycats.
This is the reported “anonymous app” that leaked in the New York Times a few weeks ago, sparking curiosity as to whether Facebook would be taking on Whisper and Secret (or the anonymous app going viral on college campuses, Yik Yak). But although people’s user profiles aren’t tied to their real life identity on Rooms, it’s hardly an “anonymity app.” It’s more akin to a reddit or an online hobbyist forum – but mobile first.
Here’s how it works. Anyone can create and name a “room,” customizing the colors, logo, “like” buttons, and Room rules. This Room will be a place where people can bond over common interests, share information, and pass the time. A room can be themed anything from “Kim Kardashian superfans” to “Ms. Jemima’s Classroom at P.S. 118” to “Knitters Unite.” It’s all up to the “founders” of said rooms.
Once the room is created, these founders can invite other people via a rather unusual QR code system Facebook invented.
Since links are difficult to copy and paste on mobile, the rooms team came up with another way: A unique QR code for each room that people can share via text, tweet, or Facebook the same way they’d share an image from their phone’s camera. The receiver can then screenshot the code and the next time they open the Rooms app, the app automatically accesses the phone’s camera roll, reads the QR code, and admits them to the Room. As a result, you can wind up with rooms that go viral via someone tweeting it, or you could have rooms that mostly stay private because the only people given the QR codes are a select group such as a classroom or a sports team. It’s sort of like reddit’s subreddit public-private system.
Once a user enters the room, they’re able to pick a screen name for themselves that will stay the same in that Room. That way, people in chat conversations have a common identity thread, albeit one that’s not tied to their real-world self – unless they want it to be. If someone is chatting in multiple rooms, they can create a different screen name for each room. The streams of conversation can include video, photo, or text.
Just like in the AOL chatrooms of yesteryear, I’ve got to imagine the possibility for porn and other illicit activity is unavoidable. Rooms content will abide by Facebook’s community standards policy, which bans everything from threats to nudity, but Facebook is relying on Rooms users to flag anything that’s inappropriate. We’ll see how well that works out.
In short, Rooms is a place for connecting with strangers over hobbies and niche interests, or for connecting with family, friends, school, or professional circles in a big group chat. Sure, there’s plenty of places users can do both already. Hell, Facebook Pages is one of them. But Rooms makes it as easy as possible on mobile, which is – duh – where the world is moving. Plus, it gives users the comfort of the anonymity element.
Just because it’s bold doesn’t mean it will work
The app is built by the team from Branch, led by early twenty-something ingénue Josh Miller, which Facebook acquired in January. Miller spent the last ten months working on Rooms, with the goal of connecting you to people you don’t already know. “The original magic of the internet and the web was coming online and saying ‘Wow, I’m not the only one that loves knitting,'” Miller told me when showing me the product. “We want to bring some of that back.”
Rooms has a lot of potential. Just like Facebook was an adaptation of Myspace or Friendster, Rooms has cottoned onto something that has proved popular in the past. It’s not starting from scratch. But it’s building said experience better, making it far easier to use on mobile and much prettier.
In other words, it’s a bold effort by Facebook to address what’s broken about social networking with something new. But that doesn’t mean the public will go for it. As we’ve seen from Snapchat to reddit, those likely to adopt the next form of socializing like when the product they use is a little scrappy and rough in the beginning. It allows them to feel like they’ve latched onto something unsullied by corporate hands, something grassroots and fresh.
Rooms is anything but that. It’s polished and elegant, just like you’d expect a social networking app coming out of the Facebook machine to be.
Furthermore, Rooms will be battling public sentiment about Facebook and privacy. There’s absolutely no social log in, or Facebook branding, which could help it in that regard, but the public may find it hard to trust any anonymish app coming out of the Facebook machine.
The last and biggest challenge is, of course, app store noise. Even with the power of Facebook behind it, Rooms will only spread if people adopt and love it. Are chatrooms with strangers really so catchy that Facebook can bring them back?