Facebook has built a new feature codenamed “Host Chat” that lets people set up chat rooms their friends can join without an invitation, a source familiar with the feature tells us. I’ve contacted Facebook and it confirms it has begun testing this feature in the wild. Reminiscent of the old AOL chat rooms, it could get Facebook users to meet friends of friends and spend more time on the site.
Facebook verified with me that it’s testing the feature, but wouldn’t comment on details beyond saying “we do test things from time to time with a small percentage of users.” These tests can be a small as a fraction of a percent of all users, and are sometimes isolated to particular countries, so it’s unlikely you’ll see this in your own Facebook unless the feature does well and receives a wider roll out.
The leak comes as Facebook is fighting a war for messaging. It’s own cross-platform chat competes with SMS, Apple’s iMessage, and now Google’s new unified messaging system Hangouts. Meanwhile, it’s battling independent international players like WhatsApp, sticker-focused products like Japan’s Line, and novel communication forms like Snapchat.
The stakes are high as messaging generates huge amounts of engagement, direct monetization opportunities through ads and sticker sales, and valuable data on who someone’s closest friends are. For tech giants like Apple, Google, and Facebook, messaging encourages platform lock-in, driving time spent on their other products.
Chat rooms could be a powerful weapon in this fight because of their relatively passive nature. With direct private communication, users typically pop in and out just to send and read messages. But people often keep chat rooms open for long periods of time. That meshes well with Facebook’s strategy of driving high amounts of time-on-site. Facebook users might browse the news feed or friends’ profiles for longer and see more ads to fill time while they gab in chat rooms.
HOW FACEBOOK CHAT ROOMS WORK
Our source provided extensive details on how the feature works. There’s always a possibility that the feature gets scrapped rather than rolled out, its interface evolves significantly, so know the details might change if Facebook decides if it is worthy of a wider release.
The Facebook chat rooms feature creates an option to “Host Chat” in the Facebook home page’s status update composer. Currently users see buttons for “Update Status”, and “Add Photos/Video”. The “Host Chat” button would be a third option there.
When clicked it opens a chat room that the host can name if there’s a specific purpose for the room, such as discussing a certain topic, planning an event, or working on a project. The host can add specific friends to the room, similar to Facebook’s existing ad-hoc private group chat feature. Those participating see the room as a window similar to traditional one-on-one Facebook chat, though I’d expect it to be a bit bigger to accommodate a higher pace of conversation.
What makes Host Chat special is that any of the host’s friends can join without being invited. They see a story in their news feed that a friend is hosting a chat room and they’re given the option to jump in. This works similar to the chat feature within Facebook Groups, where anyone in the Group can join a discussion. The use of the news feed to spread and grow rooms takes advantage of Facebook’s ubiquity and the relatively large number of a person’s friends likely to be browsing the feed at any given time.
Hosts can set privacy restrictions to limit who is allowed to join their room, and can expel people they don’t want present. There may be an option to allow friends of friends to join so a room could grow virally, but this isn’t confirmed. Figuring out the best way to handle privacy when people who aren’t friends interact in a chat room may be one of Facebook’s goals for the test.
A mid-sized group of Facebook employees including some of the existing chat team have been working on the feature. Early internal tests of Host Chat only supported text — no photo or video. Emoji would likely be included but no word on whether chat rooms will allow Facebook’s cutesy new messaging stickers. Tests were also limited to the web, though Facebook’s insistence that it’s a mobile company means it might be cranking on small-screen support, which could launch eventually if the feature is well received. It’s possible that you might be able to participate in a chat room but not start one from mobile in the initial tests happening now.
SPICING UP THE SOCIAL GRAPH
Facebook’s chat rooms could compete with Google’s Hangouts, to which they bear many similarities. Hangouts can also be openly joined by people in a Google+ user’s selected Circles. Hangouts’ big draw is video chat with up to 10 people, and it also offers many other advanced media sharing features. The strength of Facebook’s chat rooms will be in spontaneity and distribution. Thanks to heavy engagement with the Facebook news feed compared to the Google+ stream, more friends are likely to see you have an open Facebook chat room they can join than if you started a Hangout.
The generally fun, irreverent atmosphere of chat rooms could help Facebook attract and retain younger users, which critics fear are slipping away to newer social networks and communications platforms like Snapchat and Tumblr.
Chat rooms could also breathe new life into Facebook’s social graph. Since anyone who is friends with the host can join a room, people will end up interacting with friends of friends. Similar to the chat rooms of the late 90s when you might begin private messaging with someone you met in a room and then add them to your buddy list, Facebook users might friend people they meet in chat rooms.
This could inch Facebook closer to the “social discovery” industry populated by companies like Tagged and Badoo. But instead of meeting total strangers, you’re likely to have a trusted mutual friend to bridge the gap in Facebook chat rooms. This adds value to Facebook. It wouldn’t just be a place recreate your offline social graph, but to expand it.
There’s certainly a chance that feature’s privacy implications will prove too complicated, or it will flop in its test and end up like the rarely used Facebook video chat option. But in this case, Facebook is building out a tried and true online social interaction. If chat rooms succeed, they might not just move the needle for Facebook in terms of engagement. They could make the social network a more exciting, serendipitous place to spend time — a kick of spice that could keep the 9-year-old site from growing bland.