Facebook Messenger is changing its relationship status with you.
No longer content with being the conduit through which you organize your social life, the mega-million user app now wants to be your favorite social hangout.
Facebook added group video to its platform shortly before Christmas, with the presumed intention of moving away from its one-too-many social model and instead becoming a more intimate environment.
But is recreating a face-to-face conversation really that impressive anymore, or could Messenger have gone further and incorporated the things we talk about, and the way we talk about them, into the calling experience?
Group Video Calling with Facebook
For a start, this isn’t just face-to-face conversation, it is face-to-face-to-face-to-face-to-face-to…you get the idea.
The updated app will support six simultaneous callers on a single screen, although up to 50 can join at once. These half-dozen callers can appear in their own chat windows, after that everyone gets relegated to viewer status while the active speaker takes up the rest of the screen.
Alternatively, the extra callers can choose to just listen in via audio only–without watching any video–and contribute with text, stickers, and emoji. If you keep to the six-person limit everyone can don a 3D mask during the call, although Android users will have to wait for that feature a little longer.
Of course, all of this should sound familiar to anyone who’s used Skype or Google Hangouts, as group video is nothing new, nor is group video with masks. However, Messenger is the first of the big U.S. messaging services to introduce the function, ahead of stablemate WhatsApp–which has only recently added one-on-one video calls–Facetime, Viber, and iMessage. Google Hangouts isn’t really a message service, Google Duo is strictly for two, and if you use Skype for instant messaging, well, good for you.
And being first can be critical when you want to change the way consumers view your service.
A Virtual Social Life
To start making group video calls you just have to upgrade to the latest version of Messenger. Then you’re free to video chat for free (over wi-fi) as a group, just as you would at a mall, bar, or wherever it is you meet you hang out with friends.
Keeping chats to a more intimate number is going to be more effective, as a single active speaker dominating a chat of 20, let alone 50, is going to come across more as a lecture than a friendly get together–maybe save that one for the marriage/pregnancy/out on bail announcement.
Dearly departed app Meerkat’s sole surviving progeny, HouseParty, is striving to create this same feeling of “spontaneous togetherness” with a very similar group video function. While it seems it will face the same pressures from the major apps that killed its parent, HouseParty has already attracted a reasonable following.
However, the problem both Messenger and HouseParty face is they can’t natively host anything but person-to-person-to-person conversation. And social interaction in the digital age is about so much more than just talking.
Shared Social Media
The once-popular theory of second screen digital interaction has been shown to be more myth than reality. It seems people don’t get the same satisfaction from tweeting or messaging into the void about a shared broadcast or live event as they do from actually consuming it with others in person.
And Messenger will leave people isolated within the app while the digital world goes on around them on other devices and other websites or apps.
While you could all watch the same TV channel, or streaming movie, or shared link at the same time, you’ll effectively be dividing your time between at least two screens, and breaking from the conversation…as well as offering your video friends a view of your distracted face in profile.
Napster/Facebook hero Sean Parker’s recently relaunched Airtime video platform attempts to integrate third-party media directly into a group chat so it can be watched by all at once on the same screen, and that may be a future Messenger would be wise to pursue.
With deeper pockets, it could one day tap into major sporting, cultural, and entertainment broadcasts, or at least movies and TV programs, and offer these up for group consumption. Sure, it’s encouraging that a major chat app is willing to offer free group video, but there’s little imagination in Messenger’s first take.
Our modern social gatherings are almost always accompanied by a TV, a shared song, a funny video, or a live event. Maybe social video should be aiming for more than just a way to add visuals to a telephone call.
Image Source: Flickr CC User iphonedigital