Facebook launches drop-in video chat Rooms to rival Houseparty

Facebook is co-opting some of the top video chat innovations like Zoom’s gallery view for large groups and Houseparty’s spontaneous hangouts for a new feature called Rooms. It could usher in a new era of unplanned togetherness via video.

Launching today on mobile and desktop in English speaking countries, you can start a video chat Room that friends can discover via a new section above the News Feed or notifications Facebook will automatically send to your closest pals. You can also just invite specific friends, or share a link anyone can use to join your Room.

For now, up to 8 people can join, but that limit will rise to 50 within weeks, making it a more legitimate alternative to Zoom for big happy hours and such. And more importantly, users will soon be able to create and discover Rooms through Instagram, WhatsApp, and Portal, plus join them from the web without an account, making this Facebook’s first truly interoperable product.

“People just want to spend more time together” Facebook’s head of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky tells me. One-on-one and group video calling was already growing, but “Now in the time of COVID, the whole thing is exploding. We already had a plan to do a bunch of stuff here [so people could] hang out on video any time they want, but we accelerated our plans.” There’s no plans for ads or other direct monetization of Rooms, but the feature could keep Facebook’s products central to people’s lives.

Choosing to create a separate and extremely prominent space for discovering Room above the News Feed reveals how seriously Facebook is taking this product. It could have marooned Rooms in a standalone app or made them just another News Feed post that’s timeliness would get lost in the algorithm. Instead, it was willing to push the feed almost entirely off the start screen beneath the composer, Rooms, and Stories. Clearly Facebook sees sharing, ephemeral content, and synchronous connection as more key to its future than static status updates.

Facebook Goes All-In On Video

The launch of Rooms comes alongside a slew other video-related updates designed to shore up Facebook’s deficiency in many-to-many communication. Messenger and WhatsApp now see 700 million people using audio and video calls each day, while Facebook and Instagram Live videos now reach 800 million people per day. Facebook already owns the many-to-one feeds and has emerged as a leader in one-to-many livestreaming, but “the middle piece needed way more investment” Chudnovsky says.

Here’s a rundown of the other announcements and what they mean:

  • Virtual And 360 Backgrounds with mood lighting – Facebook will soon launch the ability to choose a virtual background to cover up what’s behind you on a video call, including 360 backgrounds that look different as you move around, plus mood lighting to make you look better on camera

  • WhatsApp expands group calls from four to eight max participants – Encompassing larger families and friend groups makes WhatsApp a more viable competitor to Zoom

  • Facebook Live With returns – It’s tough to be the center of attention for long periods, so being able to bring a guest on screen during Live calls keeps them interesting and low pressure
  • Donate button on live videos – This makes it much easier for musicians, activists, and normal people to raise money for causes during the coronavirus crisis
  • Live via audio only – With more musicians bringing their tours to Facebook Live, now you can listen while still going about your day when you can’t watch too or want to conserve data, and you can use a toll-free number to dial in to some Pages’ videos
  • Instagram Live on web – You can now watch Live videos and comment from desktop so you can multi-task during longer streams

  • Live on IGTV – Long live videos won’t have to disappear since they can now be saved to IGTV, encouraging higher quality Instagram Lives meant to last
  • Portal Live – You’ll now be able to go Live to Pages and Groups from Portal devices so you can move around while streaming

  • Facebook Dating Video Chat – Rather than going on a date where you have no chemistry, you’ll be able to video chat with matches on Facebook Dating to get a feel for someone first.

How To Use Facebook Rooms

Facebook strived to make Rooms launchable and discoverable across all its apps in hopes of blitzing into the space. You can launch a Room from the News Feed composer, Groups, Events, the Messenger inbox, and soon Instagram Direct’s video chat button, WhatsApp, and Portal. You’ll be able to choose a start time, add a description, and choose who can join in three ways.

You can restrict your Room just to people you invite, such as for a family catch-up. You can make it open to all your friends, who’ll be able to see it in the new Rooms discovery tray above the News Feed or inbox and eventually similar surfaces in the other apps. In this case, Facebook may notify some close friends to make sure they’ll see it. Or you can share a link to your Room wherever you want, effectively making it public.

Facebook apparently watched the PR disaster that emerged from Zoombombing, and purposefully built security into Rooms. The host can lock the room to block people from joining via URL, and if they boot someone from a Room, it automatically locks until they unlock it. That ensures that if trolls find your link, they can’t just keep joining from the web.

Naturally, Chudnovsky tried to downplay the influence of Zoom and Houseparty on Rooms. “We’re glad there are many other apps people can use when they want to see each other and stay close to each other. I don’t think we necessarily learned anything that actually became part of this product” he insisted. It’s also convenient that Rooms is essentially a non-exclusive video version of Clubhouse, the voice chat app that’s the talk of Silicon Valley right now

The Uncopyable Copier

Facebook has been quietly working on Rooms since at least 2017, exploring how to make group chats discoverable. It tried a standalone app for group video chat discovery called Bonfire that year. In fact, Facebook launched a standalone app called Rooms back in 2014 for anonymous forums.

The genius of this launch is how it combines three of Facebook’s biggest strengths to build a product that copies others but is hard to copy itself.

  • The ubiquity of its messaging apps and web compatibility make Rooms highly accessible, without the friction of having to download a new app.
  • The frequency of visits to its feeds and inboxes where Rooms can be found by the family of apps’ 2.5 billion users plus Facebook’s willingness to bet big by sticking Rooms atop our screen like it did with Stories could unlock a new era of spontaneous, serendipitous socializing.
  • The social graph we’ve developed with great breadth across Facebook’s apps plus the depth of its understanding about who we care about most allow it to reach enough concurrent users to make Rooms fun by intelligently ranking which we see and who gets notifications to join rather than spamming your whole phone book.

No other app has all of these qualities. Zoom doesn’t know who you care about. Houseparty is growing but is far from ubiquitous. Messaging competitors don’t have the same discovery surfaces.

Facebook knows the real engagement on mobile comes from messaging. It just needed a way to make us message more than our one-on-one threads and asynchronous group chats demanded. Rooms makes video calls something you can passively discover and join rather having to actively initiate or be explicitly pulled into by a friend. That could significantly increase how often and long we use Facebook without the deleterious impacts of zombie-like asocial feed scrolling.

For more of this author Josh Constine’s thoughts on tech, join his newsletter Moving Product

Facebook Messenger preps Auto Status location type sharing

Facebook Messenger could soon automatically tell your closest friends you’re at the gym, driving or in Tokyo. Messenger has been spotted prototyping a ported version of the Instagram close friends-only Threads app’s Auto Status option that launched in October.

The unreleased Messenger feature would use your location, accelerometer and battery life to determine what you’re up to and share it with a specific subset of your friends. But instead of sharing your exact coordinates, it overlays an emoji on your Messenger profile pic to indicate that you’re at the movies, biking, at the airport or charging your phone.

It’s unclear if or when Messenger might launch Auto Status. But if released, the feature could become Facebook’s version of the AOL Away Message, allowing people to stay in closer touch without the creepiness of exact location sharing. It might also help people coordinate online or offline meetups by revealing what friends are up to. Auto Status creates an ice breaker, so if it says a close friend is “at a cafe,” or “chilling,” you could ask to hang out.

Back in 2016, I wrote about how exact location sharing had failed to become mainstream because knowing where someone is doesn’t tell you their intention. What matters is whether they’re free to interact with you, which none of the social networks offered.

A few products, like Down To Lunch and Free, came and went in the meantime. Snapchat’s Snap Map and its acquisition of Zenly both doubled down on precise location sharing, yet still we’re often stuck home wondering if anyone we care about is similarly bored and might want to hang out.

Facebook has been experimenting in this space since at least early 2018, when its manual Emoji Status was spotted. That allowed you to append an emoji of your choosing to your Messenger profile pic. Then in October, Facebook introduced Auto Status, but only in the Instagram side-app Threads.

Some users were initially creeped out by the idea of Facebook relaying battery status. But Instagram director of Product Management Robby Stein explained to me that because you might not respond to a message if your phone goes dead or is left on the charger, it’s useful info to relay to friends who might be wondering what you’re doing.

Then earlier this month, reverse engineering master and constant TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong revealed a new, unreleased version of Emoji Status hidden in Messenger’s Android code. Then today, Wong showed off how she similarly spotted Facebook trying to port Auto Status to Messenger. That would bring the feature to more than one billion monthly users compared to the relatively small base for Threads.

With Auto Status, you can “Let specific friends see what you’re up to as you go about your day. Share location info, weather, and more, even when you’re not in the app.” Auto Status is only visible to a special list of friends you can change at any time, similar to Instagram Close Friends. And the feature shares “no addresses or place names. Just types of locations, like “at a cafe.” Movement (driving, biking, walking), venue (at the movies, airport), cities (in Tokyo) and battery status (low battery, charging) are some of categories of what Auto Status shares.

A Facebook Messenger communications representative confirmed to TechCrunch that the Auto Status feature was being prototyped by Messenger, noting that “We’re always exploring new features to improve your Messenger experience. This feature is still in early development and not externally testing.” The company also tweeted the statement.

One of the biggest unsolved problems in social networking and messaging remains knowing whether friends are free to chat or hang out without having to ask them directly. Reaching out at the wrong time only to be ignored or rejected can feel awkward or intimidating, and can discourage connection later. But if you have a vague idea of what a close friend is up to, you can more deftly plan when to message them, and be more likely to get to spend time together in person or just online.

That could be a cure to the loneliness that endless feed scrolling by ourselves can leave us feeling.

Facebook launches Community Hub for Messenger users to fight coronavirus rumors

Facebook today unveiled Coronavirus Community Hub on Messenger that offers tips, authoritative information and other resources to help people stay connected and informed about the coronavirus outbreak, weeks after launching a similar information hub on WhatsApp, its other messaging service.

The launch of the coronavirus hub on Messenger, used by more than a billion people, comes at a time when users are engaging with the instant messaging and voice calling more often than they have ever before, the company said.

“Around the world, we’ve seen significant increases in people using Messenger for group calls to stay in touch with their loved ones. Globally, 70% more people are participating in group video calls and time spent on group video calls has doubled,” wrote Stan Chudnovsky, VP of Messenger.

The community hub for Messenger users is the latest effort from the social conglomerate, used by more than 2.7 billion users, to help fight the global pandemic.

In recent weeks, Facebook has stepped up to help governments and agencies with free developer tools for Messenger to combat COVID-19, and introduced an info centre atop of the news feed to prominently showcase reliable information.

Additionally, the company is also working with nonprofit organizations such as the WHO to build helplines, and has committed to donate millions of dollars. The World Health Organization’s helpline on WhatsApp has already reached more than 10 million users, days after its launch.

But the vast reach of Facebook has also attracted scammers. “Unfortunately, scammers may try to take advantage of people’s vulnerability and generosity during this time. We take your safety seriously and continue to take aggressive steps to remove fake accounts and catch scammers before they reach you,” wrote Chudnovsky.

The hub on Messenger will additionally also recommend activities such as scheduling a virtual play date for parents to engage with their kids’ friends, Chudnovsky wrote.

“For local community leaders, this could mean organizing group video chats or text groups to support each other when we can’t physically be together,” he added.

Instagram launches Co-Watching of posts during video chat

Now you can scroll Instagram together with friends, turning a typically isolating, passive experience into something more social and active. Today Instagram launched Co-Watching, which lets friends on a video chat or group video chat browse through feed posts one user has Liked or Saved, or that Instagram recommends.

Co-Watching could let people ooh, ahh, joke, and talk about Instagram’s content instead of just consuming it solo and maybe posting it to a chat thread so friends can do the same. That could lead to long usage sessions, incentivize users to collect a great depository of Saved posts to share, and spur more video calls that drag people into the app. TechCrunch first reported Instagram was testing Co-Watching a year ago, so we’ll see if it managed to work out the technical and privacy questions of operating the feature.

The launch comes alongside other COVID-19 responses from Instagram that include:

-Showing a shared Instagram Story featuring all the posts from you network that include the “Stay Home” sticker

-Adding Story stickers that remind people to wash their hands or keep their distance from others

-Adding coronavirus educational info to the top of results for related searches

-Removing unofficial COVID-19 accounts from recommendations, as well as virus related content from Explore if it doesn’t come from a credible health organization

-Expanding the donation sticker to more countries so people can search for and ask friends for contributions to relevant non-profits

These updates build on Instagram’s efforts from two weeks ago which included putting COVID-19 prevention tips atop the feed, listing official health organizations atop search results, and demoting the reach of coronavirus-related content rated false by fact checkers.

But Co-Watching will remain a powerful feature long after the quarantines and social distancing end. The ability to co-view content while browsing social networks has already made screensharing app Squad popular. When Squad launched in January 2019, I suggested that “With Facebook and Snap already sniffing around Squad, it’s quite possible they’ll try to copy it.” Facebook tested a Watch Together feature for viewing Facebook Watch videos inside Messenger back in April. And now here we are with Instagram.

The question is whether Squad’s first-mover advantage and option to screenshare from any app will let it hold its own, or if Instagram Co-Watching will just popularize the concept and send users searching for more flexible options like Squad. “Everyone knows that the content flooding our feeds is a filtered version of reality” Squad CEO Esther Crawford told me. “The real and interesting stuff goes down in DMs because people are more authentic when they’re 1:1 or in small group conversations.”

Squad, which lets you screenshare anything, including websites and your camera roll, won’t be fully steamrolled. When asked if Instagram would build a full-fledged screensharing feature, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri says they’re “Not currently working on it . . . screensharing is not at the top of the list for us at Instagram.”

With Co-Watching Instagram users can spill the tea and gossip about posts live and unfiltered over video chat. When people launch a video chat from the Direct inbox or a chat thread, they’ll see a “Posts” button that launches Co-Watching. They’ll be able to pick from their Liked, Saved, or Explore feeds and then reveal it to the video chat, with everyone’s windows lined up beneath the post.

Up to six people can Co-Watch at once on Instagram, consuming feed photos and videos but not IGTV posts. You can share public posts, or private ones that everyone in the chat are allowed to see. If one participant is blocked from viewing a post, it’s inelligible for Co-Watching.

Co-Watching could finally provide an answer to Instagram’s Time Well Spent problem. Research shows how the real danger in social network overuse is passive content consumption like endless solo feed scrolling. It can inspire envy, poor self-esteem, and leave users deflated, especially if the highlights of everyone else’s lives look more interesting than their own day-to-day reality. But active sharing, commenting, and messaging can have a positive effect on well-being, making people feel like they have a stronger support network.

With Co-Watching, Instagram has found a way to turn the one-player experience into a multi-player game. Especially now with everyone stuck at home and unable to crowd around one person’s phone to gab about what they see, there’s a great need for this new feature. One concern is that it could be used for bullying, with people all making fun of someone’s posts.

But in general, the idea of sifting through cute animal photos, dance tutorials, or epic art could take the focus off of the individuals in a video chat. Not having one’s face as the center of attention could make video chat less performative and exhausting. Instead, Co-Watching could let us do apart what we love to do together: just hang out.

The best video chat apps to turn social distancing into distant socializing

The vicissitudes of social distancing have taken many people by surprise, making video calls a new necessity for distant socializing. But which of the two-dozen apps out there should you and your (perhaps not as tech-savvy) friends and family use? Here are our recommendations, whether it’s for a coffee meeting, a family get-together or a late-night gaming hangout.

This list is for individuals looking for a free solution to easily connect with others, not for small businesses or enterprises. The focus here is on ease of use and features that make it attractive to ordinary people. Every app is free and cross-platform, meaning iOS and Android at least, with many supporting Macs and Windows machines as well.

For big groups

Skype (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Linux, web)

Pros: Many simultaneous callers

Cons: Tries too hard to do other things

Skype has been around for a long time, and while its desktop app is pretty weak, the mobile version is solid and it supports big groups with no real time limit (four hours per call, 100 hours per month), for free. As long as you focus on just the video calls, it’s great, but Skype’s emoji reactions, status updates and other cruft are best avoided.


Zoom (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows)

Pros: Many simultaneous callers, strong admin controls

Cons: Sketchy background data policies, 40-minute limit

Zoom is one of the most popular business video conference apps out there due to its reliability, solid web integration and other features. It’s not really made for personal calls — there are way more bells and whistles than you need — but its free plan works just fine for them. Unfortunately, there’s a 40-minute limit for group calls, which you’ll hit faster than you think, and everyone will have to hang up and start again. Zoom has also been criticized for its considerable behind-the-scenes data collection. If you really want to just chill with your friends, there are better options.

For friends and family

FB Messenger (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows)

Pros: Easy to use, many people already on it, some handy group features

Cons: Facebook account required

Messenger is a popular app for good reason — it works well for pretty much every kind of digital communication you might want to do with your friends. It supports up to eight people in free video calls with no duration limit, and when you are doing a two-person call it switches to a peer-to-peer structure, skipping servers and potentially avoiding congestion. Of course, it’s also a Facebook product, meaning you’ll need an account there — not something everyone is into. But Messenger use is considerably better protected from Facebook snooping than posts and images on the main site.


WhatsApp Messenger (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, web)

Pros: Secure, popular

Cons: Only four people per video call

Think of WhatsApp as FB Messenger’s nerdier, less-good-looking sibling. With a focus on privacy, WhatsApp is popular around the world despite being super ugly, and while video calls aren’t its main feature, they are possible if you don’t mind a four-person limit. To activate it, start a group chat and then hit the call button at the top right and select the participants, then hit the camera.


Google Duo or Hangouts (iOS, Android, web)

Pros: Simple interface, uses existing Google account

Cons: Confusing platform issues, Duo may not be long for this world

Duo is one of Google’s later messaging products, started as a complement to Allo and meant to be sort of the consumer version of Hangouts, which is being split into Chat and Meet, but still exists on its own. Confused? So is Google. But the apps work pretty well for now, plugging into your existing Google contacts and accounts and letting you do straightforward, unlimited video calls. If your friends don’t want to sign up for a new account anywhere, this is a good option — just don’t get attached, as unpopular Google products don’t tend to live for long.


Marco Polo (iOS, Android)

Pros: Video messaging is a fun alternative to live chats

Cons: No live chat option

This isn’t a video chat app per se, but the fact is not everyone really wants to do a full-on live face-to-face video all the time. Marco Polo is like a streamlined Snapchat, sending short videos to friends or groups with the option to add doodles, filters and so on. If you and your friends are finding it hard to set aside half an hour to talk live, this can be a good alternative.


Honorable mentions: FaceTime, Instagram

FaceTime is great, but it’s not cross-platform, considerably limiting its usefulness. But if your friends do happen to have Apple products, it’s a great, simple option. Instagram has video calling built into direct messages, which is nice for quick calls with people you aren’t sure you want to bring into a smaller circle of connectivity.

For having fun together

Houseparty (iOS, Android, web)

Pros: Simple drop-in, drop-out group chat, built-in games

Cons: Basically a trojan horse for Heads Up

Houseparty established its brand as the app teens were using to chat with groups of friends without leaving the house. Pundits disapproved, but as usual, the kids get the last laugh. Houseparty is nice for a group of close friends, alerting you when someone’s available and letting people easily join in the chat with minimal fuss. The built in games are also fun, but you’ll have to pony up for Heads Up decks. The Pictionary clone is fun, but desperately needs more words.


Discord (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Linux, web)

Pros: Great for voice chat while gaming or simple occasional video chat

Cons: Occasionally confusing interface, not video-focused

Discord is the de facto champion for gaming-related communications, taking the place of many in-game chat interfaces and even schooling industry heavyweights like Steam. While it’s mainly focused on audio and does that well, video is an option too. Less savvy users may also find its interface confusing, with multiple tabs, groups and channels.


Honorable mention: Bunch, Squad

A newer app, Bunch, is focused on group games while in video chat. This can be hit or miss and you can expect in-app purchases, and startups like this don’t always live forever. But Bunch is probably getting a lot of engagement right now and can use that to extend its credit long enough to power through the summer at least. I can’t think of a better opportunity to give it a shot.

Squad is focused on sharing what you’re doing on your phone while chatting — so you can Tinder together, watch videos, etc. Like Bunch, it’s still new, so you’ll have to get your friends to sign up, but it’s a nice way to share what you’re scrolling (or swiping) through.

Facebook Messenger ditches Discover, demotes chat bots

Chat bots were central to Facebook Messenger’s strategy three years ago. Now they’re being hidden from view in the app along with games and businesses. Facebook Messenger is removing the Discover tab this week as it focuses on speed and simplicity instead of broad utility like China’s WeChat.

The changes are part of a larger Messenger redesign that reorients the People tab around Stories as Facebook continues to try to dominate the ephemeral social media format it copied from Snapchat. The People tab now defaults to a full-screen sub-tab of friends’ Stories, and requires a tap over to the Active sub tab to see which friends are online now.

The changes could push users to spend more time visually communicating with friends and consuming content than exploring chat bots for shopping, connecting with businesses, and playing games. That in turn could help Facebook earn more money from Messenger since it’s now showing Stories ads.

TechCrunch was tipped off to the redesign by social media director Jeff Higgins who provided us with extensive screenshots of the update. These show the absence of Discover tab, the switch to just Chat and People tabs, and the People sub-tabs for Stories and Active. We poked around some more and noticed the Instant Games and Transportation options missing from the chat composer’s utility tray. That formerly offered quick Uber and Lyft hailing. Messenger’s M Suggestions also no longer recommend the Transportation feature.

When we asked Messenger about the changes, a spokesperson confirmed that this redesign will start rolling out in the next week, removing Discover and splitting the People tab. They noted that Facebook had announced last August that it planned to eventually axe Discover, and that the added emphasis on Stories was motivated by users’ affinity for the ephemeral social media format. They also told us that Transportation was removed in late 2017, and Instant Games’ removal from the composer is part of the migration to Facebook Gaming announced last July.

A look at the old Messenger Discover tab that’s being removed

Chat bots, businesses, and games are being hidden, but not completely banished from Messenger. They’ll still be accessible if users purposefully seek them through the Messenger search bar, Pages and ads on Facebook, buttons to start conversations on businesses’ websites, and m.me URL that create QR codes which open to business accounts in Messenger. The spokesperson diplomatically claimed that businesses are still an important part of Messenger.

But without promotion via Discover, businesses will have to rely on their owned or paid marketing channels to gain traction for their chat bots. That could discourage them from building on the Messenger platform.

The Rise And Fall Of Facebook Chat Bots

The update feels like the end of a four-year era for Facebook. Back in 2016, it saw artificially intelligent chat bots as a way for businesses to scalably communicate with people, deliver customer service, and push ecommerce. But when it launched the chat bot platform at its F8 conference that year, it arrived half-baked.

The typing-based semantic user interfaces were confusing, the AI necessary to make chat bots seem human or at least reliably understand their human conversation partners hadn’t evolved yet, and several of the launch partner bots like Poncho The Weather Cat were laughably useless. The public soured on the idea of chat bots, and attempts to improve them felt insufficient.

Messenger launched Discover in 2017 in hopes that free promotion and visibility might convince developers to invest in building better chatbots. Yet by early 2018 even Facebook was backpedaling, shelving its plan to build out a full-service AI personal assistant called M that you could ask to do anything. Instead, it’d merely make AI suggestions of different Messenger features to use like Stickers or reminders based on what you typed. Then it announced last year that it would move Instant Games out of Messenger and into Facebook’s dedicated Gaming tab.

A laughably bad interaction with old Messenger chat bot Poncho The Weather Cat

Now with Discover disappearing, Messenger seems to be surrendering the fight to become a WeChat-style monolithic utility. In China, WeCat serves not just as a messaging app but a way to make payments, hail a taxi, book flights, top up your mobile data, get a loan, find housing, or shop at businesses via mini programs.

But while that centralized all-in-one style fit Chinese culture, Western markets have experienced more of an unbundling with different apps emerging to handle each of these use cases. Facebook’s constant privacy scandals and increasing anti-trust scrutiny also inhibited this approach with Messenger. Users and the US government weren’t ready to trust Facebook to handle so much of our daily lives. Facebook Messenger also has to jockey with competition like iMessage and Snapchat that could undercut it if it gets too bloated.

So now Messenger is going in the opposite direction. It’s becoming more WhatsApp-like — simple, speedy, and centered around peer-to-peer communication. Visual communication through Stories, with replies to them delivered as messages, feels like a natural extension of this focus while conveniently offering a path to monetization. If Messenger can be the best-in-class place to chat, unencumbered by promotion of chat bots and businesses, users might stay locked into the Facebook ecosystem.

Facebook prototypes Favorites for close friends microsharing

Facebook is building its own version of Instagram Close Friends, the company confirms to TechCrunch. There are a lot people that don’t share on Facebook because it can feel risky or awkward as its definition of “friends” has swelled to include family, work colleagues and distant acquaintances. No one wants their boss or grandma seeing their weekend partying or edgy memes. There are whole types of sharing, like Snapchat’s Snap Map-style live location tracking, that feel creepy to expose to such a wide audience.

The social network needs to get a handle on microsharing. Yet Facebook has tried and failed over the years to get people to build Friend Lists for posting to different subsets of their network.

Back in 2011, Facebook said that 95% of users hadn’t made a single list. So it tried auto-grouping people into Smart Lists like High School Friends and Co-Workers, and offered manual always-see-in-feed Close Friends and only-see-important-updates Acquaintances lists. But they too saw little traction and few product updates in the past eight years. Facebook ended up shutting down Friend Lists Feeds last year for viewing what certain sets of friends shared.

Then a year ago, Instagram made a breakthrough. Instead of making a complicated array of Friend Lists you could never remember who was on, it made a single Close Friends list with a dedicated button for sharing to them from Stories. Instagram’s research found 85% of a user’s Direct messages go to the same three people, so why not make that easier for Stories without pulling everyone into a group thread? Last month I wrote that “I’m surprised Facebook doesn’t already have its own Close Friends feature, and it’d be smart to build one.”

How Facebook Favorites works

Now Facebook is in fact prototyping its version of Instagram Close Friends called Favorites. It lets users designate certain friends as Favorites, and then instantly post their Story from Facebook or Messenger to just those people instead of all their friends, as is the default.

The feature was first spotted inside Messenger by reverse engineering master and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. Buried in the Android app is the code that let Wong generate the screenshots (above) of this unreleased feature. They show how when users go to share a Story from Messenger, Facebook offers to let users post it to Favorites, and edit who’s on that list or add to it from algorithmic suggestions. Users in that Favorites list would then be the only recipients of that post within Stories, like with Instagram Close Friends.

 

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to me that this feature is a prototype that the Messenger team created. It’s an early exploration of the microsharing opportunity, and the feature isn’t officially testing internally with employees or publicly in the wild. The spokesperson describes the Favorites feature as a type of shortcut for sharing to a specific set of people. They tell me that Facebook is always exploring new ways to share, and as discussed at its F8 conference this year, Facebook is focused on improving the experience of sharing with and staying more connected to your closest friends.

Unlocking creepier sharing

There are a ton of benefits Facebook could get from a Favorites feature if it ever launches. First, users might share more often if they can make content visible to just their best pals, as those people wouldn’t get annoyed by over-posting. Second, Facebook could get new, more intimate types of content shared, from the heartfelt and vulnerable to the silly and spontaneous to the racy and shocking — stuff people don’t want every single person they’ve ever accepted a friend request from to see. Favorites could reduce self-censorship.

“No one has ever mastered a close friends graph and made it easy for people to understand . . . People get friend requests and they feel pressure to accept,” Instagram director of product Robby Stein told me when it launched Close Friends last year. “The curve is actually that your sharing goes up and as you add more people initially, as more people can respond to you. But then there’s a point where it reduces sharing over time.” Google+, Path and other apps have died chasing this purposefully selective microsharing behavior.

Facebook Favorites could stimulate lots of sharing of content unique to its network, thereby driving usage and ad views. After all, Facebook said in April that it had 500 million daily Stories users across Facebook and Messenger, the same number as Instagram Stories and WhatsApp Status.

Before Instagram launched Close Friends, it actually tested the feature under the name Favorites and allowed you to share feed posts as well as Stories to just that subset of people. And last month Instagram launched the Close Friends-only messaging app Threads that lets you share your Auto-Status about where or what you’re up to.

Facebook Favorites could similarly unlock whole new ways to connect. Facebook can’t follow some apps like Snapchat down more privacy-centric product paths because it knows users are already uneasy about it after 15 years of privacy scandals. Apps built for sharing to different graphs than Facebook have been some of the few social products that have succeeded outside its empire, from Twitter’s interest graph, to TikTok’s fandoms of public entertainment, to Snapchat’s messaging threads with besties.

Instagram Threads

A competent and popular Facebook Favorites could let it try products in location, memes, performances, Q&A, messaging, live streaming and more. It could build its own take on Instagram Threads, let people share exact location just with Favorites instead of just what neighborhood they’re in with Nearby Friends or create a dedicated meme resharing hub like the LOL experiment for teens it shut down. At the very least, it could integrate with Instagram Close Friends so you could syndicate posts from Instagram to your Facebook Favorites.

The whole concept of Favorites aligns with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s privacy-focused vision for social networking. “Many people prefer the intimacy of communicating one-on-one or with just a few friends,” he writes. Facebook can’t just be the general purpose catch-all social network we occasionally check for acquaintances’ broadcasted life updates. To survive another 15 years, it must be where people come back each day to get real with their dearest friends. Less can be more.

Facebook fails to keep Messenger Kids’ safety promise

Facebook’s messaging app for under 13s, Messenger Kids — which launched two years ago pledging a “private” chat space for kids to talk with contacts specifically approved by their parents — has run into an embarrassing safety issue.

The Verge obtained messages sent by Facebook to an unknown number of parents of users of the app informing them the company had found what it couches as “a technical error” which allowed a friend of a child to create a group chat with them in the app which invited one or more of the second child’s parent-approved friends — i.e. without those secondary contacts having been approved by the parent of the first child.

Facebook did not make a public disclosure of the safety issue. We’ve reached out to the company with questions.

It earlier confirmed the bug to the Verge, telling it: “We recently notified some parents of Messenger Kids account users about a technical error that we detected affecting a small number of group chats. We turned off the affected chats and provided parents with additional resources on Messenger Kids and online safety.”

The issue appears to have arisen as a result of how Messenger Kids’ permissions are applied in group chat scenarios — where the multi-user chats apparently override the system of required parental approval for contacts who kids are chatting with one on one.

But given the app’s support for group messaging it’s pretty incredible that Facebook engineers failed to robustly enforce an additional layer of checks for friends of friends to avoid unapproved users (who could include adults) from being able to connect and chat with children.

The Verge reports that “thousands” of children were left in chats with unauthorized users as a result of the flaw.

Despite its long history of playing fast and loose with user privacy, at the launch of Messenger Kids in 2017 the then head of Facebook Messenger, David Marcus, was quick to throw shade at other apps kids might use to chat — saying: “In other apps, they can contact anyone they want or be contacted by anyone.”

Turns out Facebook’s Messenger Kids has also allowed unapproved users into chatrooms it claimed as safe spaces for kids, saying too that it had developed the app in “lockstep” with the FTC.

We’ve reached out to the FTC to ask if it will be investigating the safety breach.

Friends’ data has been something of a recurring privacy blackhole for Facebook — enabling, for example, the misuse of millions of users’ personal information without their knowledge or consent as a result of the expansive permissions Facebook wrapped around it, when the now defunct political data company, Cambridge Analytica, paid a developer to harvest Facebook data to build psychographic profiles of US voters.

The company is reportedly on the verge of being issued with a $5BN penalty by the FTC related to an investigation of whether it breached earlier privacy commitments made to the regulator.

Various data protection laws govern apps that process children’s data, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa) in the US and the General Data Protection Regulation in Europe. But while there are potential privacy issues here with the Messenger Kids flaw, given children’s data may have been shared with unauthorized third parties as a result of the “error”, the main issue of concern for parents is likely the safety risk of their children being exposed to people they have not authorized in an unsupervised video chat environment.

On that issue current laws have less of a support framework to offer.

Although — in Europe — rising concern about a range of risks and harms kids can face when going online has led the UK government to seek to regulate the area.

recently published white paper sets out its plan to regulate a broad range of online harms, including proposing a mandatory duty of care on platforms to take reasonable steps to protect users from a range of harms, such as child sexual exploitation.

Takeaways from F8 and Facebook’s next phase

Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Josh Constine and Frederic Lardinois discuss major announcements that came out of Facebook’s F8 conference and dig into how Facebook is trying to redefine itself for the future.

Though touted as a developer-focused conference, Facebook spent much of F8 discussing privacy upgrades, how the company is improving its social impact, and a series of new initiatives on the consumer and enterprise side. Josh and Frederic discuss which announcements seem to make the most strategic sense, and which may create attractive (or unattractive) opportunities for new startups and investment.

“This F8 was aspirational for Facebook. Instead of being about what Facebook is, and accelerating the growth of it, this F8 was about Facebook, and what Facebook wants to be in the future.

That’s not the newsfeed, that’s not pages, that’s not profiles. That’s marketplace, that’s Watch, that’s Groups. With that change, Facebook is finally going to start to decouple itself from the products that have dragged down its brand over the last few years through a series of nonstop scandals.”

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Josh and Frederic dive deeper into Facebook’s plans around its redesign, Messenger, Dating, Marketplace, WhatsApp, VR, smart home hardware and more. The two also dig into the biggest news, or lack thereof, on the developer side, including Facebook’s Ax and BoTorch initiatives.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

Facebook to encrypt Instagram messages ahead of integration with WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger

Facebook is planning to roll out end-to-end encryption for Instagram messages, as part of a broader integration effort across the company’s messaging platforms, including WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

First reported by The New York Times, the social media giant said reworking the underlying infrastructure of its three messaging apps will allow users to talk to each other more easily. The apps will reportedly remain independent of one another — with Instagram and WhatsApp bringing in 1 billion and 1.5 billion users, respectively.

In doing so, Facebook is adding end-to-end encryption to Instagram messages. That will bring a new level of security and privacy to Instagram users for the first time. Facebook will also begin encrypting Facebook Messenger by default, which has, to date, required users to manually switch on the feature.

So far, only WhatsApp messages are end-to-end encrypted by default.

The plans are part of the company’s effort to keep people on the platform for longer, the Times reported, at a time when the company has 2.2 billion users but user trust has declined following a string of privacy scandals and security incidents. End-to-end encrypted messages can’t be read beyond the sender and the recipient — not even Facebook. In shutting itself out of the loop, it reduces the amount of data it can access — and can be theoretically stolen by hackers.

“We want to build the best messaging experiences we can; and people want messaging to be fast, simple, reliable and private,” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We’re working on making more of our messaging products end-to-end encrypted and considering ways to make it easier to reach friends and family across networks.”

“As you would expect, there is a lot of discussion and debate as we begin the long process of figuring out all the details of how this will work,” the spokesperson said, without providing a timeline on the planned unification.

But how the integration will be met by European regulators is anybody’s guess.

Two years ago, Facebook rolled back its plans to begin sharing WhatsApp user data with the social network for advertising at the request of U.K. data protection authorities, putting the plan on ice across the European continent. Under the proposed changes to its terms and conditions, WhatsApp would have shared the user’s phone number that was used to verify their account, and the last time they used the service. That led to concerns about privacy, given that a real-world identity isn’t needed for WhatsApp, unlike Facebook, which requires users display their real names.

Facebook acknowledged that it didn’t have answers just yet about how it plans to navigate the issue, citing the early stages of its planned integration.

The app integrations are said to be a priority for 2019, with an eye for a 2020 release, the Times said.