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Facebook rolled out their new group video chat called Messenger Rooms, which can include up to 50 friends, and you don’t even need to have an account.

USA TODAY

From virtual cocktail hours to online classrooms, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned Zoom into everyone’s go-to social network. Now Facebook wants to kick the video-conferencing interloper off its turf.

On Friday it’s rolling out a new video chat product called Messenger Rooms so you can hang out with up to 50 people at a time with no time limit.

Rooms can be created from Messenger or Facebook and you can invite anyone to join, even if they don’t have a Facebook account. Eventually Rooms will be available on Instagram, WhatsApp and the Facebook Portal smart speaker, too.

Facebook and its family of apps have become an even more crucial communications lifeline for hundreds of millions of people sheltering at home desperate to stay in touch with relatives and friends even as the pandemic keeps them apart. 

“The ability to feel like you are directly connected with someone live over video” is essential to maintaining that togetherness, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Friday during a broadcast on Facebook Live.

“It’s an incredibly important way people are relying on to stay connected right now,” he said.

The group video chat feature was already in the works before the coronavirus, but Facebook speeded up development as the volume of video calls and group video calls on its apps skyrocketed, Stan Chudnovsky, vice president of Messenger, told USA TODAY. 

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According to Facebook, video and voice calls more than doubled last month on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, and the April 6 holiday week was the biggest ever for group video calls on Messenger. 

“Messenger’s goal was always to be the place where people can hang out with people who they love or who are close to them but who are not physically next to them. And that was something we were working on even before the pandemic started,” Chudnovsky said in an interview. “But when the pandemic started, obviously that mission of ours became only that much more important.”

►Here’s how it works: You can start and share Rooms on Facebook through news feed, groups and events. If your friends create Rooms that are open to you, you’ll see them at the top of your news feed. You can join from your phone or computer.

With the Messenger mobile app, you can use augmented reality effects like bunny ears or aliens, 360-degree and immersive backgrounds (think the beach or a royal palace) and mood lighting. 

The Rooms service is free and Facebook says it has no plans to place ads on it or to make money from it. 

“It felt like this is what people really need right now,” Chudnovsky said.

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Messenger Rooms joins group video chat apps that have become insanely popular during the coronavirus lockdown, including Google Hangouts, FaceTime and Houseparty. 

Zoom, which used to top out at 10 million daily meeting participants, surpassed 300 million this week. But the videoconferencing app, which now hosts all the activities that used to take place in person from doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions to religious services and family celebrations, isn’t the right fit for everyone.

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The sudden surge in usage of Zoom, which was designed and intended for businesses, has led to privacy and security troubles, with security researchers warning of hackers eavesdropping on meetings and trolls “Zoombombing” video calls to harass participants. Zoom now allows users to quickly lock meetings, eject participants and restrict screen sharing.

“We feel that the social part of the use case was not necessarily being addressed out there right now,” Chudnovsky said. “And this is what people are expecting from us.”

Facebook says it has addressed Zoom privacy issues

Facebook says it has built in privacy safeguards to Rooms. When you create a group video call, you can control who joins or even sees the room. You can also remove people from the call and lock a room if you don’t want anyone else to come in.

The person who creates the room must be present for the call to begin, controls who can join and can remove someone if needed. Facebook says it does not view or listen to calls. 

“We definitely spent a lot of time thinking through how to make it broadly available to everyone but at the same time it’s private and it’s something people feel they can trust,” Chudnovsky said.

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Facebook’s response to the COVID-19 crisis is proving to be a test of the Silicon Valley company’s ability to remake its public image and restore confidence after a crushing wave of negativity, privacy and security scandals damaged its reputation in recent years.

A recent poll shows Americans, increasingly dependent on online services during the coronavirus pandemic, are feeling more favorably about the tech industry in general after the tech backlash.

Some 38% of Americans say their view of the industry has become more positive since the COVID-19 outbreak, according to a Harris Poll that surveyed 2,029 adults between April 18 and 20.

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Messenger Rooms was one in a series of COVID-19 announcements Facebook made Friday.

New features coming to Facebook Dating, Facebook Live and Instagram, too

  • In coming months, you will be able to invite someone on a virtual date in Facebook Dating. When they accept, you can start a video chat in Messenger. 
  • Encrypted group voice and video calls on WhatsApp will host eight people, up from four.
  • Facebook is bringing back “Live With,” so you can add another person to your live video, such as a guest speaker, or so you can perform with a friend.
  • On Instagram, you can watch Instagram Live broadcasts on desktop and post livestreams to IGTV, not just to Stories.
  • You soon will be able to livestream on Facebook Portal, not just to your profile, but to pages and groups.
  • To help raise money for causes, you can add the donate button to live videos. 
  • If you have limited data or a spotty connection, you can listen to the audio only on live video. 
  • If you don’t have a Facebook account, most public live videos are now available on the web. Some pages can also share a toll-free number that lets you listen to the audio.
  • You can livestream games from your phone to Facebook using the new Facebook Gaming app available on Google Play. The app also lets you play games instantly, watch your favorite streamers and discover new gaming groups. 
  • On Instagram, you can watch and comment on live videos from your desktop. After you go live, you’ll soon be able to save your videos to IGTV.

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