The “anonymous chatting application” that The New York Times’ Bits blog initially reported on earlier this month is now a reality, as Facebook introduced the latest app from its Facebook Creative Labs initiative, Rooms, a throwback to the Internet’s early days and a nod to anonymity, forums, message boards and chat rooms.
Rooms, initially available via the iTunes App Store for iOS devices (in the U.S., U.K., and some other English-speaking countries), is aimed at bringing users together to discuss topics of their choice, with posts including text, photos and videos.
Customization options galore exist in the app, which allows users to manipulate elements such as text, emoji, cover images, colors, member permissions and even the like button.
And while Facebook continues to enforce its real-name policy on the social network itself and its flagship apps, Rooms users can create different identities for different rooms and contexts.
Product manager Josh Miller, who spearheaded the launch of Rooms after joining Facebook in January when it acquired link-sharing service Branch, where he had been CEO, introduced Rooms in a post on the new Rooms blog:
One of the magical things about the early days of the Web was connecting with people who you would never encounter otherwise in your daily life. Forums, message boards and chat rooms were meeting places for people who didn’t necessarily share geographies or social connections, but had something in common. Places where what you said mattered more than who you were and whom you knew. Today, as we spend more time on our phones, primarily to communicate with friends and family, the role of the Internet as a “third place” has begun to fade.
Inspired by both the ethos of these early Web communities and the capabilities of modern smartphones, today we’re announcing Rooms, the latest app from Facebook Creative Labs. Rooms lets you create places for the things you’re into and invite others who are into them, too.
A room is a feed of photos, videos and text — not too different from the one you have on Instagram or Facebook — with a topic determined by whoever created the room. Early users have already created rooms for everything from beat-boxing videos to parkour to photos of home-cooked meals. There’s even a room called “Kicks from Above” that showcases photographs of cool shoes in cool places.
Not only are rooms dedicated to whatever you want, room creators can also control almost everything else about them. Rooms is designed to be a flexible, creative tool. You can change the text and emoji on your like button, add a cover photo and dominant colors, create custom “pinned” messages, customize member permissions and even set whether or not people can link to your content on the Web. In the future, we’ll continue to add more customizable features and ways to tweak your room. The Rooms team is committed to building tools that let you create your perfect place. Our job is to empower you.
That extends to the presentation of yourself. One of the things our team loves most about the Internet is its potential to let us be whoever we want to be. It doesn’t matter where you live, what you look like or how old you are — all of us are the same size and shape online. This can be liberating, but only if we have places that let us break away from the constraints of our everyday selves. We want the rooms you create to be freeing in this way. From unique obsessions and unconventional hobbies, to personal finance and health-related issues — you can celebrate the sides of yourself that you don’t always show to your friends.
That’s why in Rooms, you can be “Wonder Woman” — or whatever name makes you feel most comfortable and proud. You can even create different identities for different contexts. In my room for technology industry discussions, I am “Josh,” but in another about backpacking travel, I am “jm90403” — a homage to my hometown ZIP code. Sometimes I want to go with my real name, and sometimes I prefer a nickname. It depends.
Our initial focus is on working closely with a small set of community builders. From talking with founders of successful communities, we’ve learned that many of the most successful communities on the Internet grew very slowly. If you think your room has the potential to be one of those, we’d love to figure out how we can help. Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, along with an invite to your room and a paragraph about why you think your room has the potential to be a meaningful community for a certain type of person. We’re committed to helping you succeed.
I sent a tweet asking people what their AIM screen names were, and I got like maybe 50 responses. And it was really, really cool and kind of brought back a lot of nostalgia. It was interesting how each person’s screen name, almost none of them — I’d say maybe only 10 percent of them — had any resemblance to their actual names. About 90 percent of those AIM screen names were either referencing a band they really liked, or a sports team they really liked. So I think for one, flexibility over what we called ourselves allowed us to bring forward sides of ourselves that we really like. It’s a creative expression of who we are.
And then I think more practically, what you want to call yourself changes depending on the use case or where you are.
In terms of the negative sides of pseudonymity and anonymity, I think that it’s not necessary that those things themselves are bad, but when in a place that is kind of unchecked and not moderated and not taken care of, people can do bad things. But I think that’s not necessarily a reflection of anonymity and pseudonymity themselves. Go look at MetaFilter. MetaFilter is like the most safe, great place on the Internet, and it’s very much not your real identity.
This is going to sound weird, but I think (Rooms) takes the better parts of that (early) Internet and doesn’t try to combine it with the newer parts of the Internet. A lot of the modern takes on anonymity and pseudonymity on mobile try to take that form of identity, but combine it with your social graph and combine it with all your friends and combine it with all your colleagues. But before, the way you organized on the Internet wasn’t around your address book contacts or the people you went to high school with — it was around these kind of islands of people and things that you felt an affinity to: interests, topics, those sorts of things.
So I think what we’re doing great, or what I’m really excited about, is that we’re taking those original concepts and not saying, “Hey, we need to match them with your address book contacts.” There are all these other things you’d want to talk to people about.
In communities, you need some sort of a recurring identity, whether it’s your real name or a fake name, you need a name, and so I think the defining part of a lot of these “anonymous apps” that a lot of people compare this to is that you don’t have a recurring identity. You don’t have any defining identity, and that’s the selling point. We just think it’s really hard to build a community. Even if you’re PNK4352 like I am, we think that that tells you something about the person, and it allows you to get to know them in a way that anonymous apps don’t.
We have the approach of a platform — a WordPress rather than a social network — which I think is something that was defining in the early Web. We build tools to let other people make things, not we make the thing for the people. I think the biggest difference between Rooms and Facebook is bigger than identity. Bigger than anything else is the fact that we didn’t build the social network, we build tools for you to make the social network that’s perfect for you.
Readers: What are your initial thoughts on Rooms?