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Why Facebook Is Trying to Turn Itself Into Snapchat

Brian Feldman

This morning, Facebook announced that it’s rolling into its main app many of the new features that it’s been testing out in its various subsidiary apps over the last several months. By “new features,” I mean, of course, “Snapchat features”: Since last year, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp have at various times, and to various extents, experimented with their own versions of Snapchat’s signature, and hugely successful, “Stories” format — short videos, arranged in sequence, that last for 24 hours before disappearing. It was only a matter of time before those same Stories arrived in Facebook’s main-franchise app, no matter how salty Snapchat might be.

But where Instagram Stories have been a big success, Facebook has a much steeper road to climb with its main app. That app — let’s call it Facebook Prime — is now a melange of conflicting ideas and social interactions, a kitchen-sink approach that speaks to Facebook’s burgeoning identity crisis and compares unfavorably to the restrained and minimal environments of Instagram and Snapchat. At the same time, it demonstrates Facebook’s complete and utter dominance in the realm of social networking. Who needs a focused, streamlined app when more than one billion people are showing up on a daily basis anyway?

Let’s start with the announcements. Facebook is introducing three functionalities to Facebook Prime: Camera, Stories, and Direct.

Facebook Camera adds in-app camera functionality similar to the camera in Instagram. Swipe left or tap an icon in the top-left corner of the screen and you’ll be treated to a Snapchat-like interface, with filters, and Lenses, and stickers. You already know what this is. The lenses rotate out based on location and date. Facebook showed off a Brazil-specific Carnevale filter, for instance, as well as one that turns you into [full-body shudder] a Minion.

The camera functionality goes hand-in-hand with Stories, the photo and video posts that last 24 hours before disappearing. Those will appear, like Instagram, as a bar of circular icons at the top of your feed. According to Facebook, that bar is ranked by the interest you show in friends, so if you check a few friends’ stories over and over again, they’ll always be pushed to the front of the line. By default, only your friends can see Facebook Stories, and pages and brands will not have access to them at launch.

Lastly, Facebook gets Instagram’s Direct messaging system. Direct is Facebook’s version of Snapchat’s “view once” messaging system.

None of this is shocking: Facebook has been staging these features for a long time. It bought MSQRD to mimic Snapchat’s Lens function and has introduced disappearing stories in Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Messenger over the last few months.

But it is fascinating to watch one of the web’s most powerful companies try to plot out its next move. Facebook Prime is now packed to the gills with an almost paralyzing amount of functionality, all of which will bombard users as soon as they open the app. Throughout yesterday’s press walkthrough, Facebook emphasized that it will adapt these features to what users appear to like. They’ll have plenty of data. Consider what users see when they first open it:

At the top left is Facebook’s new camera functionality. Top right takes you to Messenger, which is a separate app. Below the camera is Direct, a messaging product separate from Messenger that exists within Facebook Prime. Next to direct is Stories, which are different from the Stories in Instagram or Messenger, and which now get the app’s prime real estate. Below Stories is the standard Facebook status prompt that you know and love. And below that is the News Feed from whence everyone gets their Fake News. That’s no less than five separate Facebook products throwing themselves in your, well, face as soon as you open the app. And on top of determining the proper posting context, users also have to figure out privacy options and who their audience, composed of multiple friend groups and contexts, should constitute.

This is as clear a visual indication as any that Facebook hasn’t settled on a strategy to get it through the next internet epoch. For nearly a decade, Facebook has built an unbelievable advertising empire thanks to the News Feed — the product that most people would describe if you asked them what Facebook is. But the News Feed, for all of its reach, is clearly a flawed product, filled with aggressive advertising, brands, and performative posts from friends you might not have spoken to in months or years. Worse (for Facebook), there are early indications that the News Feed in trouble: For a while now, Facebook has been internally concerned that people are sharing less, a result of the “context collapse” that results from combining friends from school, college, and multiple jobs under one online presence.

So what’s the solution? Unsurprisingly, the idea of encouraging more sharing came up multiple times during yesterday’s demo, and “ganking Snapchat’s most famous features” isn’t the worst way to do that by any means. Facebook is preparing for the next step in social networking. And it’s doing so not just by hedging its bets with Instagram and Messenger and WhatsApp but by throwing everything it can into Facebook Prime and seeing what works: messaging, lenses, geofilters, stories, and anything else that’s popular (on Snapchat). That it’s able to introduce radical and potentially confusing new features like this and not worry about losing users is a testament to how vast and monopolistic Facebook’s network is. That it feels like it needs to is a testament to how quickly the web changes. Facebook hasn’t figured out what’s after News Feed, but it’s preparing for it by trying everything else.

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