SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook is taking the wraps off a new app for iOS called Rooms that brings people together around their interests.
A "room" is a feed of photos, videos and text like Facebook or Instagram but the focus is on a single topic chosen by the person who created it.
Already popular on Rooms: beat boxing, Kicks from Above (cool shoes in cool places) and mouth-watering home-cooked meals, not to mention families who have ditched suburbia to raise their kids on the road and Facebook employees obsessively playing kendama, a traditional Japanese game.
For Josh Miller, Rooms is a throwback to the early days of the Web when people from all over gathered in forums, message boards and chat rooms and used pseudonyms to discuss something they had in common.
As people spend more time on their phones, they are drifting away from the idea of the Internet as a place to connect with people you don't know in real life, said Miller, product manager for Rooms.
"Now you can connect with people anywhere around the world who like something as much as you do," he said.
And in Rooms —unlike on Facebook — people will be able to use pseudonyms. That's a major departure for Facebook, which has always insisted that people use their real names.
Rooms is the latest mobile app to emerge from Facebook's Creative Labs.
Creative Labs is building a new generation of mobile apps as part of the company's effort to grab people's attention on their smartphones.
Rooms is targeting real-time conversations both public and private which are dominated by Twitter.
Facebook is going after those conversations as competition heats up with Twitter over digital advertising dollars.
Earlier this year Facebook rolled out "trending" topics that suggest stories and topics that are popular on Twitter.
Last year it debuted hashtags which words preceded by "#" so users can more easily track conversations.
But Facebook is largely built around sharing private moments with friends so breaking into the public realm has been challenging.
Facebook bought Miller's company Branch for about $15 million in January. Branch allowed Twitter users to more easily have small discussions.
Miller said at the time he was joining the giant social network with the goal of building Branch at Facebook scale.
With Rooms, people can be as public or as private as they want. Think of it as a Facebook group for your smartphone -- except you are not tied to your real identity and you are not limited to your Facebook friends or friends of friends connecting because they are in the same soccer league or the same classroom.
Rooms is designed to connect you with new people around all kinds of topics including sensitive ones such as health issues, sex tips or personal finance.
People who create rooms can choose everything about them from the colors to the cover photo. They control who can participate in the discussions and what gets posted there. They can even use emoji to create their own "like" button.
Rooms has an equally liberal policy on what name or identity people use on the app. It doesn't even ask for your first or last name when you sign up.
Miller says he's Josh in a room that discusses the technology industry but chose "jm90403" (his hometown zip code) for a room he started on backpack traveling
he goal: for people to use the name or nickname that makes them feel the most comfortable discussing the topic, Miller said.
They can use different pseudonyms in different rooms but they have to use the same one in a specific room, Miller said.
"There is a good reason in a lot of situations why you don't want people to know who you are and it's not because of something sketchy," Miller said. "We want to give people flexibility because that's what they want."
Rooms is planning Android and desktop versions, Miller said.
If Rooms takes off, Miller said he wants to reward the people who create rooms as well as Facebook in a business model that looks more like YouTube.
"That way incentives can align. When a room does well, the founder does well and Facebook does well," Miller said.