Facebook And Snapchat Go Toe To Toe: Why It’s Good For Both Companies

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Facebook is building a standalone app to compete with the red-hot impermanent photo-messaging app Snapchat, as reported by AllThingsD’s Mike Isaac late last night.

Facebook plans to launch its app by the end of the year, and it will function very similarly to Snapchat. It will allow users to take pictures or videos (up to 10 seconds long) and “snap” them to friends, found via their cell-phone number, Facebook account if connected, or Snapchat username. The recipient can then view the snap for 1-10 seconds, set by the sender, after they open it.

It isn’t clear yet if the initial Facebook version will include video.

Why It’s Good For Facebook

It’s no secret that Facebook wants to be aggressive in mobile and considers pictures to be the core part of its service. When I think mobile and photo, Instagram and Snapchat immediately come to mind.

It would be stupid for Facebook to not try to enter this space, as Snapchat, a company of five people that is less than a year old, now sees 50 million photos shared every day.

However, I think Facebook will struggle mightily to make a major splash in impermanent data. While it has the largest social graph in the world, there have been privacy concerns with Facebook since its inception.

My generation, the core group of Snapchat users and now at the original demographic age for Facebook, has grown up using and fearing Facebook. Unlike the original adopters (looking at you, Josh), we started using Facebook in high school, and thus had to worry that the pictures and statuses we posted would come back to bite us in college admissions and job interviews.

And now, we’re expected to switch from Snapchat to sharing our most private pictures on Facebook? I just don’t see that happening. Snapchat has explained publicly that it never stores photos on its servers—we aren’t sure yet how Facebook will process the images.

Why Snapchat Benefits

Mike Isaac explains how the Facebook app will work:

“Facebook’s competing app will do much the same thing. After users open the new app, they are presented with a list of current message threads between them and their friends. Hold a finger down on one of the threads, and a timer comes up to ask how long the message should be viewable. From there, users are able to send the message — which, just like on Snapchat, will only be viewable for a fixed period of time.”

Except that’s not really the same thing. Snapchat doesn’t have a “list of current message threads,” because it’s all about instantaneous communication and capturing moments. That’s why Snapchat users are so highly engaged—because you receive a picture, open it, and immediately snap one back. You don’t go back and re-read or save the conversations.

The competition will be substantial for Snapchat, which has legitimate concerns today. Snapchat users complained very loudly in app store reviews and on social media after many had problems with the Snapchat video update on Friday. And the company has struggled to drop its scandalous sexting reputation, which could expose it to lawsuits as a significant portion of its core users are minors. Facebook, with a more wholesome reputation and greater engineering power, could capitalize on that.

More than anything, though, the Facebook competition helps Snapchat because it gives them a great deal of credibility and visibility. Snapchat got its first press in a long New Yorker article about Stanford last year, has been covered fairly frequently since then, and is raising a substantial Series A funding round.

And yet, it’s still struggled to be considered as more than a sexting app or a toy for high school and college kids. A Facebook competitor changes that. It should help push the conversation away from nudity and towards more comparisons with Instagram—a positive for a small, young company that’s raising funds, hiring Stanford engineers, and attracting users.

Who Wins?

Facebook has to choose between two paths: adjust its course and fight Snapchat directly, or use the app as a popular feature within Messenger.

If it really does want to face Snapchat head on, it needs to drop the Facebook login requirement, which it did for Facebook Messenger to compete with WhatsApp, and try to build a better product than Snapchat. Many users love how quickly Snapchat loads and grabs pictures and video (much faster than the iOS camera and Facebook camera apps for me). That’s where Facebook should focus first.

A more savvy approach might be to aim for a different demographic, rolling the Snapchat clone back into the Facebook messenger app, allowing you the option to send normal Facebook messages or snaps from your phone. The added dimension to messaging would drive engagement within Facebook’s apps, allowing Facebook and Snapchat to coexist in a growing market.