Facebook Launching Ad Hoc Group Chat, New Chat Design, Skype Video Calling

CEO Mark Zuckerberg today announced that Facebook would be launching several new features, including ad hoc group chat, a new design for its Chat interface, and a Skype integration to allow for video calling. These features are already live for some users, and the global roll out to the rest of the user base will happen quickly.

Ad Hoc Group Chat

Users will be able to choose multiple friends and begin a Group Chat instantly, without previously having created a Group with those friends. While Chatting with one friend, a drop down will allow users to “Add Friends to Chat”. This opens a type ahead, with each entered friend being added to the conversation. This way, rather than having to purposefully start a group chat, it can organically grow out of a standard one-on-one chat.

If added users are online, they’ll see messages as Chat. Otherwise, the group chat messages will appear in their inbox. Group chat also works with Facebook’s mobile interfaces, in the sense that mobile users can be added to a group chat and see messages from all other participants, though they won’t be able to add new people to the conversation.

Facebook has taken precautions to alleviate privacy issues that could arise from one user adding others to a private one-on-one conversation that might contain sensitive content. Project Manager Peter Deng tells us that, “When you take a one-on-one chat and turn it into a Group chat, you don’t bring over the Chat history. You have a clean slate. People can add to that, but by then they know they’re not talking one-on-one.”

Facebook explained that 50% of users are already using its Groups feature, with an average of seven users per group. The pre-made group chat feature was apparently very popular, and the company figured that making the feature available ad hoc between friends who weren’t already in a Group together would further increase usage.

New Chat Design

“It’s been hard to start a conversation before”, says Deng. Now, Facebook will snap on a Chat sidebar if there is enough room in a user’s browser, making it easier to browse Facebook while Chatting. “This makes it so users who have wide enough screens will have an easier time initiating conversations” says Zuckerberg.

Deng tells us that the goal was to make Chat more a part of the browser. “As you’re browsing Facebook, conversations with friends will always be one click away.”

The new sidebar Chat design also includes a more prominent iteration of an older feature called “Limit Availability on Chat”. This allows users to select which of their friend lists they appear available for Chat to. They can select to appear available or unavailable to different lists.

Previously, users had to select which lists to show in chat, and then click on a green pill icon to become available or unavailable to friends in that list. With how buried and difficult to understand this feature was, it probably wasn’t used very often.

The new design presents users with a clear “Limit Availability” option within the Chat panel. The added prominence of this form of privacy settings may be able to combat a major issue with the Chat product — — the desire to not be interrupted. Users can Chat with close friends without being interrupted by those they’re less familiar with. Alternatively, users can Chat only with their professional contacts or co-workers during the day. By being able to select exactly who one appears available to in an intuitive way, users may be more comfortable leaving Chat on.

Skype Video Calling

The Facebook Skype video calling feature will require users to download a plugin. However, if a user hasn’t installed the video chat plugin, they’ll be able to receive an invite to a video call, download the plugin on the spot, and begin video calling. This is different from traditional Skype where both users need to have downloaded Skype before hand.