The rapid growth of alternative social products has always been a cause for concern at the famously paranoid Facebook, which devotes significant resources to monitoring emerging social products and then acquiring the companies behind them or copying their features. While we are still in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s already clear that consumer behavior is changing to cope with it — and that Facebook’s existing product lineup has not met demand.
Facebook is rolling out a suite of new products to expand its capabilities in video chat. The company today announced Messenger Rooms, a tool for starting virtual hangouts with up to 50 people and allowing friends to drop in on you whenever they like. It’s also doubling the capacity of video calls on WhatsApp from four people to eight, adding video calls to Facebook Dating, and adding new live-streaming features to both Facebook and Instagram.
The moves come as the global pandemic has forced hundreds of millions of people to stay indoors and rely on digital tools for nearly all of their work, school, and play. More than 700 million people are now making calls on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp every day. But competitors are also surging. Zoom, which began life as a simple tool for business videoconferencing, rocketed from 10 million users in December to more than 300 million today. Houseparty, an app for virtual hangouts with friends that Facebook had previously cloned before abandoning the project last year, now routinely hovers at the top of app store download charts. It gained 50 million users over the past month.
Zoom saw a surge in malicious behavior as it became the world’s default meeting app, with racist, bigoted, and pornographic “Zoombombings” roiling meetings all over the world. Zuckerberg said Messenger Rooms were designed with strong privacy controls, and that the feature’s reliance on connections with your real-life friends and family make it less likely that it will be used to harass people. For groups where people don’t know each other as well, moderators will be able to kick people out of rooms. “A lot of the time that I’ve spent on this over the last few weeks as we’ve been building this out and getting ready to ship has been on privacy, security, integrity reviews, and how do we make sure that a lot of the use cases that have been problematic around Zoom are not going to be things that are replicated here,” he said.
Of everything announced today, Messenger Rooms promises to be the most significant. The feature, which Facebook says will be available in the company’s products globally sometime in the next few weeks, will allow up to 50 people to join a call. The room’s creator can decide whether it’s open to all or lock it to prevent uninvited guests from joining. You’ll be able to start a room from Messenger and Facebook.
Later, rooms will come to Instagram Direct, WhatsApp, and Portal. Guests can join a room regardless of whether they have a Facebook account. While in a room, you can play with Facebook’s augmented reality filters or swap out your real-life background for a virtual one. Some backgrounds offer 360-degree views of exotic locales, the company said. And a new slate of AR filters will help brighten up dark rooms or touch up users’ appearances. Room calls are not end-to-end encrypted, but Facebook says it does not view or listen to calls. The creator of a room can remove participants at any time, and rooms where illicit behavior is taking place can be reported to Facebook. (WhatsApp video calls are end-to-end encrypted, offering an extra layer of protection to users.)