"We’re not trying to build the next Snapchat — we’re trying to build the next WordPress."
These aren’t the words you expect to hear from the guy building Facebook’s next big app. Facebook has spent the last two years cloning Snapchat, trying to buy Snapchat, and eventually creating a pseudo-Snapchat. None of these plans have worked, so now it’s building… a blogging platform?
Not exactly. Today, Facebook is launching Rooms, an iPhone app that lets you create tiny message boards for posting text, photos, and videos. In each room you can create your own username and identity, and post or comment with friends or strangers about anything from minimalist furniture to Kendama or Destiny. Like on conventional message boards, you can set moderators, pin posts, set age restrictions, type out some ground rules for posting, and boot bad members. You can set a wallpaper and theme, and even alter the "Like" button that appears below posts to be another verb. But Rooms has no connection to Facebook or your Facebook friends in any way.
Make no mistake: this isn’t an anonymous chat or discussions app, as some speculated Facebook was building. It turns out that Snapchat and Secret aren’t the only apps Facebook’s eyeing as it grows its portfolio of social experiences. Rooms is all about building identity, but just outside the context of the world’s largest real identity service (Facebook). Rooms is perhaps most like Reddit, the web's town square for discussing specific interests. But Rooms forces you to create a different identity for each room you're in, and offers no front page or ranking system — yet, at least. For now, Rooms have chronological feeds, just like Instagram and Facebook.
Rooms is all about building identity, but outside of Facebook
The app was built by Josh Miller, the co-founder of web discussions site Branch which Facebook acquired nearly a year ago. After joining Facebook, Miller pitched Mark Zuckerberg on an old idea. Everybody wants to talk about their favorite stuff, but nobody wants to spam their friends who don’t care about it. There’s Facebook Groups for that kind of thing, but Miller emphasized that each user should be able to cultivate different identities for different spaces. Thus, the age-old concept of a message board — a place to build your own persona and talk to people with mutual interests .
But don’t countless message board communities already exist? Yep, but not on mobile, Miller argued. Now Zuck was interested.
"I would love to impress that this was not our idea."
"I would love to impress that this was not our idea," admits Miller. "The early web seemed infinite, like what else is out there? You just type in a URL. But today you don’t get that. I only have a few apps on my home screen." He argues that the majority of Facebook’s increasingly mobile, 1.3 billion users likely haven’t used any of these sites on their phone. Until this week, Reddit, which boasts 175 million monthly users, didn’t even have a mobile app of its own — and even now Reddit’s app is built largely for consumption, not creation. There’s no way to create new subreddits (topic-based rooms) or post videos on the fly. And this is setting aside the fact that message boards like Reddit can be awkward, unfriendly, or downright impenetrable to the average person unless you know exactly where to go. Additionally, most interest-based boards besides Reddit all live on their own websites, built on different systems.
"Mark said that in the early days of Facebook, the site was getting big enough where other colleges were interested, but his inclination was to let UT and Dartmouth have their own Facebooks," says Miller. "But Dustin Moskovitz said, "No, we can’t do that. Maybe in the future, the idea that [Facebook is] one network is what’s gonna be most powerful about it.’" Moskovitz was right. You do need a platform, not disparate silos, to have real network effects.
But unlike Reddit and the other message board sites of yore, there are no discovery features to speak of — an almost unholy feature omission from a "Facebook app." The only way to join a room is if you’ve been invited to one. This happens in one of two ways — both involving QR codes. Before you pass any judgments based on QR codes, a notoriously terrible mechanism for sharing URLs, hear me out.
To invite you to a room, I tap "invite," which generates a QR code image that looks like a square movie ticket. Then, I text you the image. You simply save the image to your camera roll, and when you open Rooms, the app adds you to the room automatically. How? Rooms, like every other social app, asks for access to your camera roll. Each time you open the app, Rooms scans your recent photos for QR code invites, then automatically adds you to the corresponding rooms. If you’d rather do things manually, you can always tap Use Invite in the app and choose the QR code image, or even take a photo of a QR code you found in the real world. Miller hopes that everyone from yoga instructors to concert venues will print and post QR codes for people to grab and join rooms.
Man Utd fan? Join my room! pic.twitter.com/ZVlltx92xB— Oliver Cameron (@olivercameron) October 23, 2014
It’s a fanciful, unique mechanism that Miller says feels much more native to phones than typing in URLs or searching with text. Nevertheless, the mechanic is a barrier, and virtually guarantees that all growth on Rooms will be organic — a real sign that Miller and Facebook aren’t bent on finding day-one viral success. Everything from MetaFilter to Reddit to FilePile took years to "go viral," Miller muses, so he approached the founders of all his favorite internet communities and asked how they did it. He heard one thing over and over again: you have to empower creators, and then a larger audience will follow. "We think this will be like forums with the 1-9-90 rule, where the vast majority of people are gonna lurk," says Miller, because that’s just the way interest-based online communities work. They have to be built from scratch.
Rooms won't have much content on day one, and the team behind it refuses to leverage any of Facebook's massive distribution network, or even your phone's address book. "You can’t connect a Facebook account. We don’t ask for address book access. We don’t ask for names. The only thing that’s optional is connecting email in case you lose your account," says Miller. "Netscape didn’t need a bunch of info from you to let you create and visit websites," he adds as he grins. It’s quite the comparison to draw — between a launch-day startup and the first web browser — but Miller clearly believes it.
"Communities are just as addictive as things like Facebook."
If Rooms works, it will be because Miller and co. built a great tool for creating discussions. "We are a tool for making things, so your room brand should be ahead of ours," he says. "There’s no Facebook icon or name here. If Apple let us, we’d let each room be a separate app." And none of these apps would bear any Facebook iconography whatsoever. So why is Facebook putting some of its best engineers — including Alan Cannistraro, the guy responsible for many of the iPhone’s first apps — on a product that has nothing to do with Facebook?
"Communities are just as addictive as things like Facebook," Miller says. If Rooms succeeds at building a more personal, accessible Reddit for phones, it might be well on its way towards building the next Facebook.