Facebook is launching several multi-person video-chat features on its apps in a dash to compete with the popular tools from Zoom, Google and Houseparty that billions of people are using to socialise during the coronavirus crisis.
The world’s largest social media group announced on Friday that it was rolling out Messenger Rooms — where users can join video calls with as many as 50 people — to its Facebook and Messenger apps for free.
The news almost instantaneously hit shares in California-based Zoom, which listed publicly last year and offers a similar service. Its shares fell more than 10 per cent to around $160.
“I think we’re soon going to have the leading video rooms product for social use cases,” Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said via a livestream on his platform.
Facebook, which is set to release quarterly results next week, is rushing to keep pace with long-developed video-chat tools from large rival Google, but also from Zoom and Houseparty, which have become sensations during national lockdowns.
To date, Facebook has offered only rudimentary video-calling among small groups of people, while focusing on messaging and photo-sharing.
Last month, Facebook said that it had seen an explosion in traffic on its apps. But it added that it did not “monetise many of the services where we’re seeing increased engagement”. It also warned of a “weakening” in advertising revenues
The feature will also be available on its photo app Instagram, its messaging app WhatsApp and on its Portal video-streaming devices at a later point, it said. Users can invite others to join the mass video-chats even if they do not have a Facebook account, it added.
In addition to Messenger Rooms, Facebook said it was doubling the number of people who could join video-calls on WhatsApp — from four to eight — and upgrading some of its livestreaming features on Facebook and Instagram.
It is unclear whether or how Facebook will make money from its new video-chat services and the data they will generate. Facebook said there would be no advertising on the new video services and it would not use the data from video calls to inform later advertising.
Company executive Stan Chudnovsky said the products were built “with privacy and safety top of mind” and Facebook would not be able to view or listen to the calls.
The pivot to video-chat and livestreaming is not without risk.
Newly popular Zoom — which, unlike Facebook, offers services to enterprise customers as well as social users — has suffered a string of privacy and security-related problems as its daily user numbers hit 300m, compared with 10m in December.
These included the rise of a new trend — nicknamed “Zoombombing” — where people use its screen-sharing feature to surprise others with disturbing content. Zoom has since introduced changes to try to stamp out the practice.
The shift also raises questions about how Facebook will moderate content on its video-chats, with the company forced to rely heavily on computer moderation.
Separately, Mr Zuckerberg also announced a new service called “virtual dates” that will allow users on Facebook’s dating service to invite matches to video chat on the platform “in order to start to get to know them better”.