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Facebook-CEO-Mark-Zuckerberg-is-working-for-free-this-yearFacebook has built a new feature codenamed “Host Chat” that lets people set up chat rooms their friends can join without an invitation. This could get Facebook users to meet friends of friends and spend more time on the site.

The leak comes as Facebook is fighting a war for messaging. It’s own cross-platform chat competes with SMS, Apple’s iMessage, and now Google’s new unified messaging system Hangouts. Meanwhile, it’s battling independent international players like WhatsApp, sticker-focused products like Japan’s Line, and novel communication forms like Snapchat.

The Facebook chat rooms feature creates an option to “Host Chat” in the Facebook home page’s status update composer. Currently users see buttons for “Update Status”, and “Add Photos/Video”. The “Host Chat” button would be a third option there.

When clicked it opens a chat room that the host can name if there’s a specific purpose for the room, such as discussing a certain topic, planning an event, or working on a project. The host can add specific friends to the room, similar to Facebook’s existing ad-hoc private group chat feature. Those participating see the room as a window similar to traditional one-on-one Facebook chat, though it might be a bit bigger to accommodate a higher pace of conversation.

What makes Host Chat special is that any of the host’s friends can join without being invited. They see a story in their news feed that a friend is hosting a chat room and they’re given the option to jump in. This works similar to the chat feature within Facebook Groups, where anyone in the Group can join a discussion. The use of the news feed to spread and grow rooms takes advantage of Facebook’s ubiquity and the relatively large number of a person’s friends likely to be browsing the feed at any given time.

Hosts can set privacy restrictions to limit who is allowed to join their room, and can expel people they don’t want present. There may be an option to allow friends of friends to join so a room could grow virally, but this isn’t confirmed. Figuring out the best way to handle privacy when people who aren’t friends interact in a chat room may be one of Facebook’s goals for the test.

A mid-sized group of Facebook employees including some of the existing chat team have been working on the feature. Early internal tests of Host Chat only supported text — no photo or video. Images would likely be included but no word on whether chat rooms will allow Facebook’s cutesy new messaging stickers. Tests were also limited to the web, though Facebook’s insistence that it’s a mobile company means it might be cranking on small-screen support, which could launch eventually if the feature is well received. It’s possible that you might be able to participate in a chat room but not start one from mobile in the initial tests happening now.

You might not see this on your Facebook page as usually, only a small percentage (and in selected countries) of all the users is chosen to participate in such trials.

Credit: Techcrunch