Facebook goes back to the future with Rooms

Pseudonymity in online community received a boon last week from an unlikely source.

Facebook, King of ‘real name to rule them all’ culture online, launched a beta version of a new app called Rooms that lets users create a virtual chat community around any topic they want using a pseudonym – and without a Facebook account.

Users scan a 2D barcode which is then shared to whoever they’d like to invite. Moderation functionality allows for filtering, pre-approval and banning, and owners can customise the design.

For those of us weened on bulletin boards, alt.newsgroups, IRC, LiveJournals, Nings and more, it’s a welcome bolt from the big blue – who may have finally got identity right.

FB rooms image

 

Creator Josh Miller, former chief executive of discussion site Branch, calls Rooms an intentional hybrid of early online communities and smartphone technology.

Miller calls out what many of us who participated in and built communities in the early Internet era acknowledge – that a name is different from an identity in a social setting – and that online communities thrived long before social networks.

A name is different from an identity in a social setting.

I’m thrilled to see posts like this from Miller in recent days, highlighting precisely the sort of organic community catalysing that this type of platform empowers:

roomsdepress

Reclaiming our social selves

I’ve suggested for some time that the social web is circling back on itself, with the resurgence of branded online community hubs, and micro-communities of relevance, and the growing weariness with catch-all networks overrun by brute marketing noise.

Early online communities were largely pseudonymous, and were driven by passion and purpose. They weren’t the ambient town squares of today’s major social networking platforms.

They were about hyper-relevance, not widespread reach. They understood that the people we know in real life might not be the people we want or need to form a community with.

They recognised that community metrics are about strength of ties and dynamics of interaction over time, not vanity clicks.

Early online communities were about hyper-relevance, not widespread reach.

We saw the gradual backlash against AOL when that company attempted to be the single source of truth for a person’s content and relationships. Facebook has experienced a credibility deficit over time as its tried to enforce its inorganic real name policy and a similar model.

As I see it, Rooms could be the smartest play Facebook has made in years; a discrete service that offers something things to people (and organisations) their core platform does not – agency and non-intermediated context.

Of course, they’re not the first to respond to this identity fatigue, and they’ve had a substantial hand in creating it to begin with. But the arrival of Rooms appears so promising for constructive, flexible community building that it almost doesn’t matter.

What does it mean for community managers?

Community managers have already been discussing the potential impacts of Rooms on their work, and the wider web landscape.

Some of the questions being asked:

  • What impact will this have on more existing traditional forums, and newer forum platforms like Discourse?
  • What kind of mechanisms will it evolve to curate content (bubble it up or push it down)?
  • Should Rooms let users port a username across multiple Rooms so they can accrue content and interaction against that alias?
  • How and will Rooms be commercialised? What frameworks (official and unofficial) will spring up to manage businesses and brands? How will a brand’s Room federate with user generated rooms on the same topic?

As Rooms settles into the hands of users, we’ll surely see business swoop to explore and make use of it. Anything that inspires someone to dive down a rabbit-hole (games, movies, television, books, art, technology) should find Rooms has something to offer, let alone the inspiring applications for the public sector, activism and health, just to name a few.

Learning from the grand master

Forums are gloriously stubborn, because they’re still the social technology format most closely aligned with who we are as humans. Despite regular cries of their death in an age of appified, anywhere sociability, they persist, even thrive.

It’s not surprising that Miller and his team have looked to forums and IRC as the inspiration for the conversational architecture of Rooms. The two go hand in hand. The forums I was involved in through the 1990s all had IRC satellite channels, where members would ‘second screen’ while composing longer posts to the ‘mainstage’ of the bulletin board.

Both offer people agency over their identity and a way to engage many-to-many, using any expressive media that suits their topic – features that cohese and foment community.

Facebook is taking care not to position this as a backflip on its militant approach to IRL naming conventions, but I can’t help but think it’s a positive signal for users and online community builders that the network giant is letting people behave more naturally online.

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