WTF is Facebook’s new Rooms app?

This article is a WTF explainer, in which we break down media and marketing’s most confusing terms. More from the series →

What’s old is new again at Facebook: The social network released Rooms on Thursday a new standalone app designed to evoke the Web 1.0 days of yore. Rather than a sprawling social network based personal connections between people presenting digitized versions of their “real” selves, Rooms allows for pseudonymous connections between people who share a common interest.

It’s just the latest move in Facebook’s ongoing strategy to transition from being an all-inclusive communications platform to something of a holding company comprised of several brands for specific modes of communication.

Rooms uses QR codes as a way to invite users to new groups.
Rooms uses QR codes as a way to invite users to new groups.

But what is Rooms and why would Facebook, the company that has determined how more than a billion people define themselves on the Web, build an app fundamentally different from its core business? Those questions, and more, are answered below.

So…how does Rooms work?
The premise is simple: Users create “Rooms” — essentially chat rooms about a specific topic — and recruit other users to join.

How’s that differ from a Facebook page?
Rooms is mobile only. Users can access Rooms from their desktops but can only add to a conversation from the app itself. Second, users aren’t bound to their Facebook profiles (or any profile for that matter); they can create pseudonymous “nicknames” and can use a different one for each Room they join.

That’s not exactly new.
Nor was it meant to be. The pseudonymous feature is meant to replicate AOL Instant Messenger screen names, Josh Miller, Facebook’s product manager for Rooms, said in an interview with TechCrunch. And the idea of connecting with pseuodonymous strangers around shared interests harkens a pre-Facebook Internet, in which replicating real-life connections wasn’t the goal.

But Rooms is also a straggler when it comes to anonymous sharing apps; a cabal of apps (including Secret, Snapchat, Whisper and Yik Yak) have attracted millions of users over the past year by providing a more private alternative to Facebook. These apps have tapped into “identity fatigue,” according to Whisper editor-in-chief Neetzan Zimmerman. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person.”

Great. But why does Facebook want to go old school?
Because Facebook — the site invented and popularized by college students — has lost its lustre on campus. Its traction has slipped among college-aged Internet users, so it’s creating more narrowly focused apps to hedge against a more widespread exodus from Facebook proper.

So far, that strategy has been a resounding flop. None of the apps Facebook has created thus far — many of them blatant rip-offs of popular existing apps — have found a substantial audience. Facebook has been able to diversify via its Instagram and WhatsApp acquisitions (to the tune of $23 billion).

Will Rooms be the exception?
Maybe. While there seems to be some truth in Zimmerman’s “identity fatigue” theory, Facebook’s past attempts to replicate other apps’ successes have floundered. Rooms users must send each other QR codes — a technology declared “dead as a dodo” last December — in order to invite one another to new Rooms. And it didn’t help that some hopeful users were unable to download the app on Thursday.

What are the advertising implications?
Rooms is ad-free at the moment, as Facebook (which did not return a request for comment) is apparently sticking to its scale-first-monetize-later approach. But that won’t prevent enterprising brands from trying to use it to create communities there. First one wins.

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