Facebook, the world’s busiest social network, is secretly building its users a quiet little getaway where they can chill with friends.
Part Facebook app, part standalone platform, this new group video calling service is an acknowledgment that the younger users of the giant social network are increasingly being drawn to private online hangouts, away from the public broadcast.
Facebook has named its private escape Bonfire, and was recently testing it in Denmark. Early reports suggest Bonfire is a clone of private group video chat hangouts like Airtime, ooVoo, and Houseparty, apps which act as virtual living rooms where friends meet to consume the internet the way real-world sports fans meet in bars to watch the World Series.
If that’s true, it’s a smart move. Those other apps are specialists that offer an escape from mainstream social media. If Facebook app Bonfire proves popular, however, Facebook will become both the mainstream and the escape from the mainstream.
Bonfire Is an App Within an App
Facebook’s secret Bonfire test was discovered on the Danish iOS app store in July, and, thanks to some “creative” account management, the app’s features have been revealed to the wider world. The app shows up for U.S. Android users, but doesn’t seem to be downloadable in our area yet.
Bonfire seems to be a group video chat platform that lets up to eight users meet face-to-face simultaneously and share the now familiar Snapchat- and Instagram-style special effects and masks. Users can see each other within a wall of chat windows, or switch to active speaker tech and have the entire screen dedicated to whoever is currently talking. It also copies the Airtime and Rabbit feature of allowing users to watch video online together (see our Rabbit review here).
All that imitation hardly makes for a very exciting development, especially since Facebook already has Messenger for group video calls of up to 50 people. What is different is the adoption of a private rather than public approach to group video. Don’t be mistaken, Bonfire will be deeply connected with Messenger, Instagram, and Facebook itself–you can launch calls from and share photos to those services, so much so that it almost seems like an app within an app.
However, it is designed to let users step away from those mass communication apps and find some personal time in what has become known as the internet’s Third Place.
Creating a Third Place
Facebook’s success is built on extending its users’ social connections across the length and breadth of the entire internet. At first, it brought together distant relatives, long-lost high school classmates, and absent friends. Now it has grown into a venue for e-commerce, news, celebrity gossip, and advertising.
All that noise, however, has begun to alienate Millennial and Generation Z users–basically everyone under 35. The public broadcast nature of Facebook has become more like an awkward family dinner, and they are instead seeking out online privacy.
The apps they have sought refuge in–Houseparty, Airtime, and others–have become known as Third Place spaces. They’re virtual living rooms where friends gather in private away from all the shares, likes, and updates on Facebook, and have deeper conversations than is possible on instant messaging services like Snapchat. They are places to share conversation, a movie, or other streamed media, and to act like there’s no physical distance between friends.
Facebook’s response is, again, imitation. Just as it cloned Snapchat with Instagram, which now has more users than the original, now it’s sending out its own Third Place clone, Bonfire.
Chatting on Facebook App Bonfire
The key to Instagram’s success over Snapchat was convenience. Facebook ruthlessly copied all the best bits of Snapchat, and made them accessible within apps people were already using.
The same game may well play out with Bonfire. As much as Facebook may have lost its “cool,” it is still used by 2 billion people worldwide. If you’re looking for a friend anywhere in the world, chances are they’re on Facebook, even if they don’t actively engage with their account every day.
What Facebook will be aiming for is a world where people make their big “I’m engaged” announcement on the main site, and then disappear off into a Bonfire group chat with a few select friends to gush over the news in private. Why bother with a second site, like Houseparty, and force everyone to download an app and join you, when you can just hit a Bonfire link from within Facebook?
That enormous built-in audience also gives Bonfire an advantage in promoting the invention of the Third Place as its own. It’s likely that much of the Facebook world is unaware of the existence of Airtime and ooVoo, and will be intrigued by the ability to share a YouTube video within a group video chat.
Finally, Bonfire gives Facebook users the best of both worlds. The direct links between the two apps mean users can keep up-to-date with the goings-on in the wider world, while also having the ability to retreat to their virtual living room to discuss it all.
Facebook has had its share of side projects fail–more than a dozen, at least–so there’s no guarantee Bonfire will be a roaring success. However, Messenger and Instagram have proven that younger audiences will overlook the Facebook pedigree if an app works as it should. So if Bonfire can offer a little seclusion from the “network” side of social media without being totally isolated from all those handy connections, it could become the new Houseparty before Houseparty can even get on solid ground.