Messaging App Viber Takes A Step Into Social Networking With New Public Chats Feature

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A lot of messaging apps have been highlighting how their services are a great way for people to directly communicate with their friends directly, in opposition to the bare-all nature of social networks like Facebook. But today Viber, the messaging app with 209 million users, is taking a different approach: it is launching Public Chats, giving users a way of using its direct messaging and voice services app to broadcast to the world at large.

Public Chats will see the introduction of live conversation streams — from celebrities, or as CEO Talmon Marco told me, other interesting people “like taxi drivers!” — that will be open for any follower to see, but not necessarily participate in. Users will only be able to jump in and talk in Public Chats if the account in question is in their contacts.

(And then, those comments will become a part of the public stream.)

It gives Viber, which was acquired by Japan’s Rakuten earlier this year for $900 million, a little social media spin, and at the same time helps differentiate it from the rest of the crowded messaging app pack, which is led by the likes of Facebook (Messenger: 500m users; WhatsApp: 600m); but also includes a number of other very popular apps like WeChat (600m users); Line; and many more.

Public Chats is launching with a list of “global celebrities” signed up, including Perez Hilton, YouTube sensation Tyler Oakley, singer-songwriter Pixie Lott, international DJ Paul van Dyk, digital fashion innovators Next Model Management, European football channel COPA90.

Speaking while in New York for one of the two events that Viber organised to announce this news (in NYC and London), Marco tells me that it’s been optimised first for Android devices but will work on other native Viber apps, versions 5.0 or higher. You select the Public Chats bar from the main menu, then the “compass” icon to find a list of available Public Chats to follow, then you follow them.

Viber_Chats_02

Marco would not comment directly on whether any of Public Chats’ early adopters are getting paid to be on the service but the process at least made it sound like some of them were signing up as another way of extending their social media reach to those who opt to use Viber as their communications platform of choice.

“We spoke with a bunch of people and some offered to participate,” he said. “Generally we are looking for those who can create interesting chats — not just celebs but others like taxi drivers or bloggers, people whose conversations we feel would be interesting.” And, presumably, okay with having their conversations, or a part of them, made public for 209 million people to see.

Right now, there is no option for everyone to enable their streams to become part of the public mix but those who feel their chats are Public Chat-worthy can email publicchats@viber.com and “We’ll take a look at it,” he says. “Our intention is to open the service more after it is rolled out. As a beta product we want to have greater control at first.”

For Viber, the motivation for doing this is two-fold. It’s about using popular people to bring more engagement to Viber, and more new users to the platform. But it’s also about differentiating itself from the mass of other messaging services out there.

“This is not Twitter,” he says. “The idea is that if you know Pixie Lott, she can add her to your Public Chat and the world can see” what you say to her, and what she says back to you.

To be clear, this is not about Viber finding ways of serving ads, Marco insists. Unlike Snapchat, which is pushing ahead on its advertising services, “We are not,” he says. “This is just additional content on Viber. There will be no ads in in Public Chats.”

Interestingly, that doesn’t preclude deals that brands might cut directly with Public Chatters, similar to what happens in Instagram or Twitter with certain stars using their feeds to promote certain products. “Of course, you can put in an ad if you want for, say, Coca-Cola. But it’s your content, your chat, and we are never going to introduce things like that ourselves.”