Facebook is now rolling out a Messenger Rooms platform that will allow video calls to simultaneously host up to 50 people, up from eight in existing Messenger video conferences. According to CNBC, the initial launch will feature a lower capacity than that, but the company is working to hit the target of 50 in the relative short term. That is significantly more than competitor Houseparty, which allows a maximum of eight concurrent users, while less than Zoom, which has a free version that allows for a max of 100 people—but only for 40 minutes. Messenger Rooms will have no time cap.
Zoom, probably the primary competitor to Facebook’s video chat functions during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, has been plagued by waves of “Zoom bombings,” in which brigades of loosely organized trolls have taken advantage of the company’s haphazard default security settings to join random meetings and broadcast porn and violent imagery. Facebook, on the other hand, has a long history of both alarming vulnerabilities and bugs in some of its messaging products and deliberate design decisions that allow it to collect large amounts of data about who is talking to whom—such as when it admitted its Portal video chatting device was actually collecting info for ads after it explicitly said it does not. The company also has a habit of hoovering up data users may have never known would be taken, such as contact records and metadata from calls and texts from smartphones.
According to CNBC, the platform will be semi-open, meaning that anyone can join a call—whether or not this could result in abuse will likely depend on its implementation and if Facebook exercises proper oversight, something that hasn’t always happened in the past:
Video calls on Messenger Rooms have no time limit, and they will include features like augmented reality filters that allow people to add silly masks to their faces. Room hosts will also be able to lock the calls and remove users. Facebook and Messenger users can create Messenger Rooms, and they can invite anyone to join, including people who don’t have a Facebook account.
Per the Verge, Messenger Rooms calls will not feature end-to-end encryption—something Zoom has come under fire for—but Facebook pinkie swears it won’t spy on calls.
This also falls neatly in line with Facebook consistently absorbing every competing service’s features shortly after they become popular, relying on leveraging its huge captive audience and ease of use to smother the competition. Facebook has been wary of rivals on the video chatting front for years, and tried to get Houseparty out of the picture with its nearly identical counterpart, Bonfire, that it eventually shut down last year. Instead it decided to transfer most of the existing functionality to Instagram and Messenger.
In other ominous news, Facebook announced on Friday that it would be expanding its baffling dating feature to include video dates, following similar product launches by Match-owned Hinge and Plenty of Fish. It will also be expanding group calls on WhatsApp—which are end-to-end encrypted—to allow up to eight people, as well as introducing a number of other video features.
“Video presence isn’t a new area for us,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the Verge. “But it’s an area that we want to go deeper in, and it fits the overall theme, which is that we’re shifting more resources in the company to focus on private communication and private social platforms, rather than just the traditional broader ones. So this is a good mix: we’re building tools into Facebook and Instagram that are helping people find smaller groups of people to then go have more intimate connections with, and be able to have private sessions with.”
Zoom stock was up about three percent on the day before falling to five percent down on news of the Rooms announcement, according to CNBC.