Facebook's next communication advancement harkens back to the Internet's earliest days.
The company's new Rooms app, unveiled Thursday, will allow people to chat in groups. Users can sign in to the app with an email address or use a pseudonym, and they don't need a Facebook account to join. Users can post photos, movies and text, and they can even change the company's iconic "like button" to say whatever they want. Facebook expects users will create Rooms based on various themes, such as snowboarding pictures, great classical music, or a love of the animated television show "My Little Pony."
Rooms is just the latest example of Facebook's continued focus on refining how users send messages to one another. Facebook already has apps called Messenger, WhatsApp and Slingshot, which help users send messages to one another or groups. Its photo-sharing app Instagram allows largely anonymous users to share photos and have conversations. And Facebook already has software for group message boards through its website. Most of the features in Rooms already exist throughout Facebook's website and other apps.
But Facebook believes this chat app has a place in that already busy lineup. Rooms allows anonymous postings, for instance. It also was designed for mobile devices -- a departure from cramming Facebook's website features into a small program that fits on a screen nestled in the palm of your hand.
The app was designed by the team at Branch, a startup Facebook bought earlier this year. Branch's website followed a similar theme to Rooms, attempting to recreate the message forums that were popular decades ago, like Usenet or The Well.
Rooms is "a tool for empowering individuals," said Josh Miller, project manager for Rooms, when asked to explain the app. With Rooms, Facebook is tapping into the culture of the early Internet by creating a way for groups to anonymously send messages, photos and videos. As with many of those early forums, people must be invited into Rooms. Users send one another invitations that contain QR codes -- an image with an array of black and white squares that the app can use to identify and join a Room. Longtime Internet users might not be surprised by one omission: Rooms doesn't have a search function.
People who choose to run individual Rooms can choose whether they want it to be a free-for-all of anyone posting whatever they like, or they can approve posts manually as they're sent.
How will Facebook know it's a success? That will take time, Miller said.
Much like Slingshot and other new projects that have come from Facebook this past year, the company says it hopes users will gradually gravitate to the app -- testing new features in small groups and slowly building a loyal following. "If we grow too quickly it fails," Miller said. One of those Rooms will be dedicated to complaints and ideas to improve the app. Miller said he's already signed up for a place at the table.
Rooms is available today on Apple's iOS in the US, UK and some other English-speaking countries.