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Mark Zuckerberg on how video chat needs to evolve for the pandemic

Facebook’s CEO on building Rooms now, virtual reality later, and the massive acceleration in virtual connections

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Mark Zuckerberg
Image: The Verge

In March, as COVID-19 spread around the world, I argued that tech companies would need to get creative to help us maintain our social ties through the weeks and months of physical distancing to follow. Sure, we’ve got phone calls and Zoom, but neither were built for a world in which we would need them to host virtually all of our work, school, and play. It seemed clear that some new tools would be needed — and, as of today, we have some.

Facebook today rolled out a new suite of products dedicated to what the company calls “virtual presence” — and what you and I would more often call video chat. The products encompass Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram, and fall into three categories. The first is plain-vanilla video chat, like the kind you find in WhatsApp, where the number of people you can have in an encrypted call has been raised from four to eight. The second is in broadcasts, such as on Facebook Live, where you’ll once again be able to bring a second person into your stream from their own account, and on Instagram Live, which is becoming available on the desktop for the first time.

The third is called Messenger Rooms, and it represents Facebook’s entry into a space pioneered by Houseparty and now also occupied by Zoom. I wrote about all this in today at The Verge:

Of everything announced today, Messenger Rooms promises to be the most significant. The feature, which Facebook says will be available in the United States 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 to start. 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.

On Thursday afternoon, I hopped onto a short video call with Mark Zuckerberg to discuss the news. Highlights from our discussion follow. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Casey Newton: What’s the idea behind Messenger Rooms?

Mark Zuckerberg: The basic idea there is it will do the basic use case of helping you create a link and share it around through all your social channels. But it’s also very focused on discoverability. For social use cases ... you’ll plan out a dinner party or happy hour or something like that. But some of the time you just want to say, “hey, I’m sitting on my couch, I want my friends to stop by,” without having to plan it out or invite the exact eight friends you want to come by. So just being able to open up a room and say “hey, I’m cool with my friends stopping by” — or this group or community on Facebook — I’m going to put [the link] in here, and open up a room, and people are interested in this thing and [they] stop by. Just in building this product, it’s enabled a lot of really awesome, serendipitous connections. So I’m very excited to get that out there.

I’ve heard that you have been spending a lot of your work time lately on these video products. Is that right?

Yeah, I’m focused on this. The three big areas that I’m very focused on right now are basically the products that are helping people stay connected better. I’m very focused on remote presence: being able to feel like you’re with a person even when you can’t physically be there. And then the small business work and the acute health response. So, that’s been all my time.

We’ve started to see stories about “Zoom fatigue” and the idea that constant connection over video chat can be exhausting or overwhelming. What’s your view on how good these tools are? Can they get really good with existing technology, or are we going to need a virtual reality headset?

I think that there’s a bunch of different dynamics that are at play. Part of it is just the basic quality. And this is why I thought it’d be useful for you to do this call on Messenger Desktop — it works pretty well. You need the latency to be low; if the latency is too high, then basically it doesn’t feel like a real interaction. And it subtly exerts this psychological tax. But I think our services clear that bar; I think a lot of other ones do at this point. So I think that that can be surmountable. 

Clearly, there are a bunch of things that are kind of weird about just staring at a video screen. I did a management team meeting in VR earlier, when everyone was working from home. And even though VR is earlier in its development, and video presence is more mature, there’s something about the feeling of space. Like, we’re standing in a circle in a room, and I had a sense of like where Stan [Chudnovsky, head of Messenger] was standing, and the audio was coming from that direction. So there was something that felt a lot more real about that in a way. I do think that there are things that we’ll get to over time. Video presence is not the end of the line. 

But I think some of this also is just about the social dynamics. I get a headache when I sit in the office — or when I used to sit in the office, I guess, before all of this — scheduled minute to minute throughout the day, because I didn’t have time to take a break or think. I think that some people are having that reaction now, where you’re just on videoconferences all day long. But that’s not because you’re on a videoconference all day long, it’s because you’re in meetings all day long, back to back. So I think a lot of this is more about the social dynamics than it is just about the technology. 

How does Rooms attempt solve that?

Part of what I think is unique here is that this isn’t just, let’s set up a meeting, and then everyone join the meeting at this time. I think there is something that could be a little repetitive about like, “alright I’m doing all my work over videoconference” — at the end of the day, do I want to go do another? Do I want to go to another scheduled event?

But part of what I’ve found really serendipitous and fun about this is that it’s not a schedule. On the weekend, I’ll be playing guitar on my couch and create a room, and it’s like, “alright who wants to come by and hang out?” And it’s just a completely different kind of interaction than anything that any of our technology is enabling us to have today that I’ve really appreciated so far. You know, it’s a bunch of people who maybe I would have run into at a social event or around the office, who I wouldn’t necessarily call directly, but I’m very happy when they stop into my room to hang out. Or if I’m browsing the Facebook app and I see that they have a room, I’ll just drop in quickly. So it’s fun, and it’s enabling a new kind of interaction, and I think people will enjoy it.

I realize it’s quite early into this, but people are beginning to discuss whether what we’re seeing right now with video chat is a temporary shift or a more permanent one. I can imagine a world where the minute I can have most of my interactions in person again, I’m going to be doing that. This is obviously a big investment for you, which suggests to me that you think that maybe at least some of these are more permanent shifts. How are you thinking about it?

I think both are right. We’re up to 700 million daily calls across WhatsApp and Messenger. And that’s up some amount, but it was a huge number before, too. I’m sure there’s some kind of temporary peak now, but the trend has been going this direction for a while.

When you have 700 million people a day doing something — and have been even before this started for some period — that’s not just a temporary thing. The trend was already going in that direction. And I think that this period will accelerate that permanently by a few years. But clearly we’re in a fairly extreme period right now.

The Interface /

Casey Newton’s evening newsletter about Facebook, social networks, and democracy.