Facebook is rolling out its own video conferencing service called Messenger Rooms. The chat tool looks and works a lot like the popular (but troubled) video chat app Zoom. You might even say Facebook ripped off all the good features that made Zoom so successful while dumping the ones that made it so controversial. Facebook does this all the time.
Like many other apps, Messenger Rooms lets multiple people video chat at the same time. Rooms allows for up to 50 people to join, which is more than the 32 people who can FaceTime simultaneously and less than the 100 people who can join a Zoom meeting. Unlike Zoom, which caps free sessions at 40 minutes, Messenger Rooms has no time limit.
You can create rooms from within a Facebook Group, create one as an event and invite certain users to attend, or start one through your News Feed. Facebook says your invitees don’t even have to have a Facebook account to participate, nor will they have to download an additional app to use it. They can just access the room through a link. This is the kind of seamless ease of use that made Zoom the king of video chatting apps, and now Facebook appears to want the throne.
“Facebook has felt the demand for real-time video,” the company said in its blog post announcing the feature, which is one way of saying that we’re all locked inside our homes and so must seek human contact, for which we are increasingly desperate, through remote means. “Spending time with each other should be spontaneous, not strained,” the blog post argues.
It looks as though Facebook wants to set itself apart with the privacy and security features built into Rooms — features that seem to be inspired by Zoom’s missteps. The room creator can control the room’s visibility, members, and lock it to prevent outsiders from joining to avoid Zoombombers (or Roombombers, as they’d be called in this case). Facebook says it will only ask for a name for users joining rooms who are not logged into Facebook, and that’s only for the purposes of identifying them to fellow room members. It will collect device data from all users, but that’s typical of every website and app.
Beneath the surface, Facebook says it has made room links “difficult for hackers to guess” — an issue for Zoom that predates its pandemic popularity. The company also claims it will not use any audio or video from Rooms to “inform ads.” Finally, Rooms content is encrypted, as is all Messenger content. Facebook stresses that it isn’t end-to-end encrypted due to the difficulties of doing this for video chats with multiple participants. (For what it’s worth, Zoom is also not end-to-end encrypted, even though it once claimed it was.) It’s ultimately a bit ironic to see Facebook positioning itself as a videoconferencing service that’s more secure than Zoom, which has been plagued by privacy issues lately. Facebook’s had more than a few privacy issues of its own.
Just hours before announcing Rooms, Facebook announced that a federal court approved its $5 billion settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, the culmination of the FTC’s investigation into Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Part of the settlement includes compliance and oversight requirements. Facebook has already implemented most of these, which actually puts it ahead of Zoom when it comes to instituting such measures.
Rooms is not Facebook’s first attempt to get into the group video chat space. It’s not even the first time Facebook has been inspired to knock off another company’s video chat service. Earlier this month, Facebook debuted a desktop-only app for group video chats, something that looked a bit like the group video chat feature for Messenger that Facebook introduced back in December 2016. At the time, that effort seemed suspiciously similar to the then-nascent and younger-user-skewing Houseparty app (which has also seen its popularity grow during the pandemic). This was years after Facebook partnered with Skype to introduce a video chatting feature to the social media platform (but not anymore).
Facebook Rooms is actually just the latest in a long line of products that Facebook has copied from its competitors. Facebook offerings like Stories, Marketplace, Live, and Pay are versions of features first found on Snapchat, Craigslist, Periscope, and Venmo, respectively. In the case of photo sharing and encrypted messaging, Facebook simply bought the leading competitors: Instagram and WhatsApp. In fact, it’s hard to think of a Facebook feature or product that is original — including Facebook itself, which was just an iteration of earlier social networking sites Myspace and Friendster.
Messenger Rooms will start to go live this week. Depending on which country you live in, it might be a few weeks before it comes to you. Facebook says you’ll be able to create a room only from Facebook and Messenger at first, but it’s working on integrating Rooms with its Instagram, WhatsApp, and Portal apps.
Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.