As it’s long been expected to, Facebook finally unveiled its entry into the anonymous app market today. Dubbed “Rooms,” the standalone app does everything it can to hearken back to the early days of the web and the chat rooms that were part of the experience that followed opening Trumpet Winsock logging on via dial-up modem.
Rooms are meant to basically be anonymous chat rooms that anyone can build around any topic, inviting others through the use of QR codes that are either recognized by the app or can be printed out and scanned with the app.
There are some customization options available and Facebook is promising more tools are coming. But the focus is on anonymity. From the introductory blog post:
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.
Again, they want to go back to the old days of the internet, when lots of people went by usernames that often bore no relation at all to their real names. You could be Wampa74 if you wanted to and fit in with everyone else who had the same sort of pseudonym.
But while Facebook has come under fire for their insistence on using real names (criticism this new app does nothing to blunt, much less defuse) this is 2014. We’re in the middle of GamerGate, where anonymous bullies (calling them “trolls” doesn’t do it justice) are causing female journalists and others to leave their homes for fear of violence and recrimination. Robin Williams’ daughter abandoned Twitter and Instagram because of the anonymous bullying she was subjected to in the wake of her father’s death. And the existing anonymous apps are coming under fire from all sides for entirely predictable reasons.
So while Facebook is trying to get a piece of the anonymous app market, it’s doing so at exactly the wrong time from the perspective of public sentiment. More than ever it’s becoming apparent that anonymity, unless it’s for a legitimate purpose involving the safety of the person or people, is something that’s being abused in ways the trolls who would try to dominate and derail message boards back in the late 90s only dreamed of. People’s entire lives are online, so when they upset one of these bad actors there’s exponentially more damage that can be done, whether online or in the real world.
Taking another perspective, I’m sure there are brand managers around the country who are twiddling their fingers and white-boarding all their ideas for how to build Rooms around their brands’ industry thought leadership, use them as a rallying point for fans and so on. But considering how the app is anonymous, the idea of turning this into a long-term viable community is minimal. There are a dozen ways to misstep here, just like there are in any sort of community effort. It’s almost a certainty, though, that within a week there will be stories about a major company trying and reporting on initial results.
Whatever the case on all these fronts, Facebook finally made good on their promise to get into this market. Now we’ll just have to see both how it pans out on some of the points I’ve raised above and, quite frankly, whether the app survives the year. Facebook has not had great luck when it comes to stand-alone apps. While this takes a very different approach to anonymous conversations than other apps it remains to be seen whether that’s enough to get people to engage in behavior that, in today’s mobile-first world, is fairly unique.