A new mobile app from Facebook could prove to be a cause of concern for CIOs and IT managers. Facebook Rooms, the latest in a series of niche apps developed by Facebook's Creative Labs division, lets users anonymously create and join small online communities based on specific topics.
The Rooms app doesn't require personal information to sign up, and it operates independent of Facebook's social graph. Rooms' photo, video and text feeds are similar to feeds you'd see on other social sites, but they're tailored to enrich specific topics, trends or ideas. Nicknames and pseudonyms are encouraged and can be changed between rooms for anonymity. For example, a user who joins a room for bourbon enthusiasts could use the nickname "BellyFullOfBourbon" before jumping to a pour-over-coffee lover's room and using a name like "JavaToTheBone."
Inspired by Early Web Communities
Facebook Rooms is a throwback to what the Internet used to be — before social-media-persistent identities and countless logins. It's a nod to a time before users were forced to fill out so many forms and remember piles of passwords.
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Facebook product manager Josh Miller, who joined Facebook when his team at Branch was acquired last January, says Rooms is "inspired by both the ethos of those early Web communities and the capabilities of modern smartphones."
"One of the magical things about the early days of the Web was connecting to people who you would never encounter otherwise in your daily life," Miller wrote in a post that outlined the vision behind Rooms. "Today, as we spend more time on our phones, primarily to communicate with friends and family, the role of the Internet as a 'third place' has begun to fade."
Rooms isn't trying to reimagine or copy the anonymous chat features found in apps such as Secret or Yik Yak. The idea of connecting around mutual interests and the "potential to let us be whoever we want to be," is the central idea of Rooms, according to Miller.
"Our job is to empower you. That extends to the presentation of yourself," Miller wrote. "It doesn't matter where you live, what you look like or how old you are — all of us are the same size and shape online. This can be liberating, but only if we have places that let us break away from the constraints of our everyday selves."
Miller and the rest of the team behind Rooms encourage users to "celebrate the sides of yourself that you don't always show to your friends."
The concept of selfless thinking can go a long way toward making communications more open and free. One potential downside, however, is that cyber bullies and virtual predators could use that same freedom and anonymity to menace others.
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Implications of Facebook Rooms on CIOs and IT
The implications of Facebook Rooms and services like it on CIOs aren't glaringly obvious, but the rise of ephemeral messaging and anonymous sharing could spell trouble for IT in some dark corners of the Internet. Some organizations already block access to social media sites on company-owned devices, due to perceived productivity losses. Apps like Rooms could provide further motivation for IT to regulate the sites its users can access on corporate networks.
Millions of people use apps like Secret and Whisper because they want their communications to remain anonymous. Their motivations for seeking that anonymity run the full gamut from simple playfulness or curiosity to malevolence and mischief. A disgruntled employee could cause trouble for IT by creating a room to bash their employer or share protected data and trade secrets, with very little fear of being tracked down. Users who employ Rooms to hide their identities and perform online activities they might not otherwise perform using their real names could utilize corporate networks.
Apps like Facebook Rooms continue to gain traction as users seek outlets to rebel against the commercialization of Facebook, according to Carmen Sutter, a product manager at Adobe Social. Facebook knows this, and it is taking a more hands-off approach with Rooms and other similar apps, including Slingshot.
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Users might not even have any idea that Rooms comes from Facebook unless they do some digging. "I think anything that Facebook does gets an immediate publicity surge," Sutter says. "People always hate it, then they adapt."
Rooms could initially see some level of negativity due to its Facebook connection, but the app also benefits from direct access to the company's infrastructure, security tools and resources, which no other app or social outlet can match.
When users become disillusioned with Facebook, "it's more a feeling of being manipulated versus having your identity at risk," Sutter says. "When was the last time you heard about somebody hacking Facebook?"
Sutter's implication is that if there's one company that can operate an anonymous and safe community today, why shouldn't it be Facebook? It's too early to tell if Rooms will spur a massive online-chat revival or inspire new levels of sharing via pseudonyms. Sutter feels certain about one thing, though: Apps like Whisper and Secret won't be the long-term solutions to consumers' mounting privacy concerns.