Facebook drops anonymous chat app ‘Rooms’ while Ello swears off ads


Anonymity is the new frontier, and one titan and one upstart are jostling for turf.

Facebook released an app called Rooms on Thursday that lets you chat with friends and strangers using any name you choose. Meanwhile, Ello signed an add-free ethos into its charter (yes, its charter) while simultaneously raising $5.5 million from investors.

The Rooms launch is an echo of Facebook’s recent decision to siphon off a core feature—messaging—into a standalone mobile app.

It also departs from Facebook’s need to control what you can and can’t do. Consider how its algorithms determine which of your posts your friends see in their Newsfeeds and which of yours filter into theirs. Then consider how Rooms is designed to be your own living room.

Inside the app, you can create new chat rooms and label them. You can invite anyone to join. You can change viewer settings and set age restrictions. You can customize the color scheme. Crucially, you can choose the name under which you interact.

And this is the most interesting thing about Rooms, and is a departure from Facebook’s policy on real names.

Facebook ran into some well-deserved trouble just last month for shutting drag queens who used their stage names on the social network out of their accounts. After a campaign online, and offline, led by members of the LGBTQ community, one that focused the spotlight Ello, Facebook apologized, but as we see now, that wasn’t the whole story at all.

“We want to give people flexibility because that’s what they want,” Josh Miller, one of the key architects of Rooms told USA Today. (Miller founded the conversation platform Branch which Facebook acquired in January this year.)

Ello, it seems, is what people want.

According to the New York Times’ DealBook, the invite-only network grew from 90 users in August to a million users today, with 3 million more on the wait list. The team didn’t intend to raise money. The team changed its mind.

When news broke that Ello was seeking funding, huffy new users bemoaned the inevitable sell-out that would follow. The dream coudn’t last. Ello would need ads to survive.

But surprise, Ello has followed through on its claim that it’s in it for the long haul. With some difficulty, the company found a way to stay true to its original goals while also securing the fuel to build out its servers and beef up security. It won’t sell your data. You won’t see any ads.

Facebook’s Rooms makes no such guarantees.

To your friends and employers, your identity online includes your choice of profile picture, the kinds of photos you post—and yes, the handle you post them under. To companies your identity includes the sites you visit online, the kinds of socks you shop for online, and the ads that follow you around from site to site.

Identity and anonymity, in some sense, have very little to do with your name.

Image via Flickr user Garry Knight

This article was corrected to reflect the following: The Rooms co-founder is Josh Miller, not Frank. Also, Ello currently has one million users and not seven million. 

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at [email protected]
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