Is Rooms the anonymous Facebook app people were expecting? “No. Unequivocally No…because you cannot be anonymous in our app,” Josh Miller tells me. The Branch founder turned Facebook product manager’s new forums app Rooms launches today, and he says lessons from Tumblr, Twitter, Snapchat, and the early days of the web guided its construction.
Rather than a one-size-fits-all social network or anonymous app with a single, collective feed, Rooms is modeled after distinct websites with different rules and purposes. In this Q&A, Miller explains his goal to give a mobile-only app the flexibility and self-expression of the web 1.0 era when we were screen names, not real names.
For a closer look at how Rooms works, check out my launch story.
Basically, the iOS and Android app lets you create a “Room” or forum about any topic, customize its look and feel, choose your screen name for that Room, and decide how widely to share the QR code invite that lets people join. Members then share around a Room’s topic through an Instagram-style vertical feed of text, photo, and video posts plus their accompanying comment threads. From geeking out about “Game Of Thrones” to creating a safe space for cancer survivors to support one another, Rooms is designed to spawn communities around whatever subjects people want.
Rooms looks chic and new, but its roots trace to before Facebook, and even before Myspace.
Q&A edited for clarity
TechCrunch’s Josh Constine: Let’s just start all the way back. What were some of your favorite parts of the early Internet?
Facebook’s Josh Miller: So there’s a lot. I think when you first opened a browser, there was kind of the sense that the Internet was infinite. Where you knew a little bit about it, but you couldn’t see the entire thing, and there is something about that made it feel really cool to me. It was infinite. You weren’t so sure what was out there.
The second was that I like that you felt like you were hopping from different place to different place. My godfather was a Director of Planning for Los Angeles, and I’m kind of obsessed with urban spaces, and I loved how on the Internet it felt like when you went from website to website, you were actually somewhere completely different, unrelated from the last. Each place looks very different from the previous one. We behaved very different, what we talked about was different there, and you can also bring a different side of yourself. And somehow, all of that was really, really cool.
Constine: Has mobile been able to embody these elements?
Miller: I think it’s starting to trend that way. A great example is one of my favorite products, Tumblr. I absolutely love Tumblr and David Karp and everything they’ve been doing there. One of my favorite things about Tumblr was when I was starting out on the Internet, it allowed me to kind of make my own place on the Internet that looked and reflected me, and that looked different from the next Tumblr blog. But at the beginnings of the Tumblr iOS App, you lost all those templates, and those customizations, and the look and feel. I believe in the last update they brought it back. But in general, I do feel like the world of mobile has lost a lot of that customization, and even the idea of distinct spaces, and part of that is just the nature as apps and not websites.
I think that, rightfully so, people look at mobile devices and apps and say, “Okay, this isn’t the World Wide Web. What would it look like if we did it on mobile?” And I think that’s a question a lot of companies ask themselves. “If we were to reinvent X today, what would it look like on the phone?” So, I think that it’s nothing against the mobile apps and the world of mobile, but I do think that there is a lot from what was going on in the World Wide Web that could be readopted for the mobile devices.
Constine: Anonymity and pseudonymity were big things back in that early web era. What were some of the benefits that you thought that they brought?
Miller: Actually, I sent a tweet asking people what they’re AIM screen name was, and I got like maybe 50 responses. And it was really, really cool and kind of brought back a lot of nostalgia. It was interesting how each person’s screen name, almost none of them…I’d say maybe only 10% of them…had any resemblance to their actual name. About 90% of those AIM screen names were either referencing a band they really liked, or a sports team they really liked. So I think for one, flexibility over what we called ourselves allowed us to bring forward sides of ourselves that we really like. It’s a creative expression of who are.
And then I think more practically, what you want to call yourself changes depending on the use case on where you are.
For example, if I want to get some facts or I have questions about health issues, or anything that’s a little sensitive, you may not want to necessarily tie that back to your real identity. But then, in some places, you do want to be your real identity. So when I go to Product Hunt, I love that I’m Josh Miller and that people know that I was a co-founder of Branch and work at Facebook.
So I think the thing I loved was the flexibility to show the side of myself that I wanted to show depending on where I was and who I was talking to. But then also just the creative expression. I think that a big part of Rooms and what we’re trying to bring back is that you can be creative and fun. It should be fun. You should be able to be creative and express what you want depending on where you are.
So I think that one element that’s typically lost in a lot of these discussions about identity things, was fun. Like AIM was fun, thinking up screen names was fun, having an away message was fun.
Constine: But there were some problems that anonymity and pseudonymity presented, right?
Constine: What were the challenges or the problem?
Miller: So I think one of them, which Facebook really capitalized on, is that in a lot of situations, you do want to know who the person you’re talking to is, right? So that one was what was so great about Facebook, is it came along. I remember I was on Myspace, and kind of an addicted Myspace user, and I remember I was so stoked to get onto the Santa Monica High School Facebook network when I became a freshman because you knew it was everyone in your high school there in one place, it was awesome. So not necessarily a problem, but I think that again, “real identity” is very great for a lot of things.
And then in terms of the negative sides of pseudonymity and anonymity, I think that it’s not necessary that those things themselves are bad, but when in a place that is kind of unchecked and not moderated and not taken care of, people can do bad things. But I think that’s not necessarily a reflection of anonymity and pseudonymity themselves. Go look at MetaFilter. MetaFilter is like the most safe, great place on the Internet, and it’s very much not your real identity.
So I think it has less to do with the form identity and more to do with who’s there watching. You probably know like real identity can also get really bad depending on who’s there. So I think it’s more about what sort of people are governing and looking out for a space and not what is the text next to a person’s name.
Constine: How does Rooms combine the best parts of the anonymity and pseudonymity of this old Internet without the problems?
Miller: This is going to sound weird, but I think it takes the better parts of that [early] Internet and doesn’t try to combine it with the newer parts of the Internet. A lot of the modern takes on anonymity and pseudonymity on mobile try to take that form of identity, but combine it with your social graph and combine it with all your friends and combine it with all your colleagues. But before, the way you organized on the internet wasn’t around your address book contacts or the people you went to high school with, it was around these kind of islands of people and things that you felt an affinity to: interests, topics, those sorts of things.
So I think what we’re doing great, or what I’m really excited about, is that we’re taking those original concepts and not saying, “Hey, we need to match them with your address book contacts.” There are all these other things you’d want to talk to people about.
Constine: So is Rooms the anonymous app that people thought it was?
Miller: No [laughs]. Unequivocally, no. And I think the biggest reason is because you cannot be anonymous in our app. Internally, we spend more time talking about, ‘How do you build community?” rather than ‘how do you build the next big social app?’ We’re obsessed with how you build communities.
In communities, you need some sort of a recurring identity whether it’s your real name or a fake name, you need a name, and so I think the defining part of a lot of these “anonymous apps” that a lot of people compare this to is that you don’t have a recurring identity. You don’t have any defining identity, and that’s the selling point. We just think it’s really hard to build a community [like that]. Even if you’re PNK4352 like I am, we think that that tells you something about the person, and it allows you to get to know them in a way that anonymous apps don’t.
Constine: So what are some of the use cases you imagine for this app?
Miller: One is a room I started. I like to travel a lot and specifically go backpacking, but I find it really hard when I go somewhere new to figure out where to go because Lonely Planet has gotten pretty touristy in a way. If it’s in Lonely Planet, everyone that’s going to that place is going there. And so I found that the most special places I visited are kind of off the beaten track places I’ve accidentally stumbled into, and so I created a room for travelers to share these kind of off-the-beaten-track-places that they found with other travelers. So I’ve put some of my favorites in there, and I’ve gotten some of my Facebook colleagues to put their favorites in there. I’m really excited to get people from all around the world to share theirs, and that’s a great example of where just my friends wouldn’t do the trick. I really want people from all over.
Then another one that really matters a lot to me is my girlfriend worked at a nonprofit called Covenant House, which is a children’s homeless shelter. Specifically, she worked for the one in New Jersey, and they have a huge transgender community, and I was talking to one of the directors there, and he was mentioning how they have a hard time finding each other across the various shelters to talk to each other and then offer support and just kind of get to know each other, and how Facebook or other social networks that encourage real identity aren’t necessarily great for that. We have a room for folks in the transgender community that I’m really, really excited about. And specifically, I think that is a great place where the fact that we don’t have discovery in the app, and we allow you to be flexible with your identity, is going to be a huge plus.
Constine: Facebook really stuck to its guns around real identity for a long time, over a decade. Do you think it neglected this space that Rooms is tapping into?
Miller: No. I think the biggest thing I’ve gone from all of my “mentors” whether it’s Jonah or Ev or Mark is that you’ve got to focus. A lot of the companies that could have been great that have failed lost focus of what they were good at and what they cared about and what their mission was. So I think Facebook’s mission, and I think what always makes Facebook so awesome — again I reference Santa Monica High School network — was friends and family, and creating a community for people that you know.
So I think that they neglected it in the same way that maybe Apple’s neglecting the space that Amazon’s in. It just wasn’t what the company was built around. And so, no, I don’t. And again, I think that’s why now that they’ve reached a certain scale, they opened up Creative Labs and say, “Hey, now let’s go experiment in a bunch of different directions.” And one of those is forums and message boards in different forms of identity, but I don’t think it was a mistake to not focus on it up until now. I know nothing about how to run a company. I’m not an expert on whether or not it was good or bad decision, but it seems to make sense from afar.
We have the approach of a platform — a WordPress rather than a social network — which I think is something that was defining in the early web. We build tools to let other people make things, not we make the thing for the people. I think, the biggest difference between Rooms and Facebook is bigger than identity. Bigger than anything else is the fact that we didn’t build the social network, we build tools for you to make the social network that’s perfect for you.
Constine: Standalone apps have become a big trend, between big companies trying to launch new little products or whole incubators dedicated to them. Do you think that this is a distraction to Facebook’s focus, or is this a manageable strategy?
Miller: No, no, no. I definitely don’t think it’s a distraction. I do think it’s manageable.
I think the main thing that Mark really believes that I think I’ve seen other places go wrong is that it takes a lot of time for these things to grow.
So I was talking to Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat, on Twitter, and he tweeted at me that Snapchat took a year before it had any growth at all, and a lot of products these days he thinks see this unnecessary pressure to grow quicker, and I think that’s very true. So I think if anything, Facebook’s a great place to do this because Mark understands that if you’re going to build something novel and new, it’s going to take a while for people to get it and it’s going to take a while for people to grow.
So yeah, I think it’s a good strategy for Facebook to look to experiment in areas that they haven’t now that their core business is getting larger and more mature, and I think it’s a great place to do it because Mark’s not going to be as anxious as other founders are.
Constine: Watching the reactions to Facebook’s other standalone apps like Paper and Slingshot, do you think the press has been too hard on them? And how are you trying to manage expectations for Rooms?
Miller: So yeah, I can only really speak about Rooms. My team is a lot of the original Branch folks, and we were kind of mentored and brought up by the Twitter guys who said, “Look, a year and half in with Twitter, we weren’t really sure if it was working. The growth was kind of flat” These things take a long time, and what you should be looking for is, “Is anyone addicted to your product? Is there a core set of people that just love what you build?” So when we launch, I’m not going to be looking at what the press says though I will definitely read it, and I won’t be looking to the overall growth numbers to know if we built something great. I’m going to see, “Do we have a handful of Rooms that enough people are coming back to every day and every other day?” Because I think that’s what was so amazing about forums in online communities, is people check them just as much as they check Facebook.
So Rooms, again, I’m looking for, “Is anyone addicted to what we’ve built?” Not, “Does everyone in the world get it right away?” Because if everyone in the world got it right away, we probably didn’t build something that interesting.
We have the approach of a platform — a WordPress rather than a social network — which I think is something that was defining in the early web. We build tools to let other people make things, not we make the thing for the people. I think the biggest difference between Rooms and Facebook is — bigger than identity, bigger than anything else — is the fact that we didn’t build the social network, we built tools for you to make the social network that’s perfect for you.