Facebook’s Rich History Of Copying Snapchat

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LONDON, Aug 3: There’s no denying Instagram’s new ephemeral “Stories” copies many aspects of Snapchat. From its name to the format — a chain of photos and videos with playful special effects that disappear in 24 hours — it’s reasonable to call Instagram’s feature a Snapchat clone.

After all, Snapchat’s “Stories” pre-dates Instagram’s by three years (Snapchat first launched Stories in 2013 and added a company-curated version called “Our Stories” in 2014). Social media apps have always to a certain extent copied or “borrowed” from one another. Facebook FB -0.42% is credited for inventing the feed and Twitter TWTR +7.25% for inventing the hashtag. Because Facebook is the largest social media empire in the world (the flagship app alone has 1.7 billion monthly users, Instagram has 500 million, and WhatsApp and Messenger have 1 billion each), users tend to notice when the Menlo Park-based company mimics another app. Even though Facebook’s main app and Instagram have separate leadership teams and Instagram has autonomy over its product, outside features Facebook Inc. mirrors offer insight into the company’s anxieties and where it thinks social media sharing is headed next.

Facebook’s motivation for mimicking Snapchat comes down to users and mobile screen time. Snapchat and Instagram, in particular, compete fiercely for teens and millennials. According to an App Annie study of iOS and Google GOOGL -0.51% Play app downloads worldwide from January through May this year, Instagram was the fourth-most downloaded app, followed immediately by Snapchat. While Instagram has more than 500 million monthly users and 300 million daily users, Snapchat reportedly has about half as many daily users and is growing quickly. Facebook has had its eyes on Snapchat for years, even before Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel turned down Facebook’s $3 billion acquisition offer in 2013.

Facebook has little to lose by cloning other services. It’s large enough that it can launch entirely new apps and fold them (as it has done many times in the past, such as with Rooms, Riff and Paper). And Facebook’s core apps have enough users that they can easily test specific features among a fraction of users. Even in the case of Instagram Stories, because the app’s original filters, profiles and feed remain, if “Stories” doesn’t take off, Instagram could remove it from the service without much risk of losing users who still value the app’s community and core tools.

On the flip side, the rewards of mimicking can be huge with the potential to spark engagement, user growth and buzz. Early this year, Facebook took a page from Twitter and its live video app Periscope and other video streaming apps like Meerkat, and widely launched live video on its main app. “Live” has been a hit for Facebook, and will likely be a core pillar of the app moving forward. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg emphasized the company’s intent to continue pushing video on a conference call with investors last month: “We see a world that is video first, with video at the heart of all of our apps and services.” (He also noted to investors that Candace Payne’s Facebook Live Chewbacca mask video has been viewed nearly 160 million times.) During Facebook’s fourth quarter and full-year earnings call six months ago, live video wasn’t even mentioned, which helps show just how quickly brand new features can become central to an app.

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