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With New App, Facebook Harkens Back to Internet 1.0

Online chat rooms lured a generation onto the Internet in the 1990s and then faded in the age of social media. Now, the biggest social network wants to resurrect them – on your phone.

Facebook said Thursday it is launching a standalone smartphone app called “Rooms,” a nostalgic throwback to Internet 1.0, updated for the mobile Web.

The app is like an infinitely large house where users can create rooms for specific purposes, like discussing current events, planning exotic vacations or breeding yorkipoos. The posts, which can include photos or videos, appear in chronological order.

Like Internet message boards, all posts in Rooms are public. But the creator of a room may limit who can contribute posts. Contributors can use pseudonyms.

Rooms is the latest entry in Facebook’s strategy of building standalone apps independent of the social network itself. This year, it launched the news aggregator Paper, a photo-sharing product called Slingshot and a video-capture app called Hyperlapse.

Rooms stands out because it encourages users to create longer-lasting content and participate in conversations. Some rooms may be silly or frivolous, but the app could become a place to discuss current events and breaking news.

Every post in Rooms is tagged with a Web address, or URL, making it visible to search engines like Google . That’s an important feature because it links the mobile app to the desktop Web, opening the app’s contents to searches from personal computers.

A room’s creator can turn off the web links and search features, making the room more private. But anyone who knows the location of the room can still visit it.

Rooms was designed by Josh Miller, a 24-year-old Princeton dropout who co-founded the online-discussion site Branch and sold it to Facebook in January. Branch still operates. Miller said he met frequently with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg while honing the concept of Rooms.

Despite Zuckerberg’s involvement, Miller stressed that the app is separate from Facebook. It won’t offer users suggestions on which rooms to join based on their Facebook friends. It doesn’t use the phone’s address book to build a network. It can’t share content with Facebook. Miller said he wants people to interact with people outside their social network.

“We’re risking our growth,” Miller said, because the app won’t take advantage of Facebook’s massive audience of 1.3 billion regular users.

A Facebook spokesman said Facebook does not identify the devices that use Rooms, so it won’t know whether a Rooms user is a Facebook user or who they are. But he said Facebook might consider doing so in the future to better understand who is using the app. That would allow Facebook to know the real name of Rooms participant using a pseudonym, for example, but the spokesman said Facebook would never share a user’s identity.

To build Rooms, Miller said he turned himself into a historian of the Internet, calling the creators of popular Internet message boards to ask how they attracted participants. He researched ways to block “flamers,” or people who post offensive or off-topic content in a room.

Miller also wanted to give users the ability to control the look and feel of their chat rooms, something that’s not common in mobile apps. People who create rooms can choose any background color and post customized images.

Invitations to join a room use QR codes. People who follow the room can send the code to others. They can also print the invite, allowing anyone who scans the code with a phone camera to join the room.