14 times Facebook has tried to be Snapchat

Facebook may not have been able to buy Snapchat, but that hasn’t stopped the social network from co-opting many of the messaging app’s features.

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A few years ago, Facebook reportedly tried to buy Snapchat. It was turned down. Since then, the social network has worked on a bunch of products and features that appear to copy the mobile app it once coveted.

On Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported on the latest example: Facebook is developing an app whose home screen will open to the device’s camera, just like Snapchat’s home screen. According to the report, Facebook’s in-development camera app is supposed to get people shooting more photos and videos and uploading them to Facebook.

Part of Facebook’s motivation in building the camera app may have to do with the reported dearth of people posting personal content like photos or videos of themselves. It may also have to do with the fact that people are still sharing that content; they’re just increasingly doing it on Snapchat. Snapchat claims that more than 60 percent of the 100 million people who use its app every day are creating content, not just consuming it.

Since being turned away by Snapchat, Facebook has tried, at least in pieces, to turn into Snapchat. In addition to the in-development camera app, there are at least 13 more examples of times Facebook has introduced a familiar feature. A lot of those examples were one-off apps built by Facebook’s experimental arm, Creative Labs, which was shut down in December 2015, along with some of those apps. And there are plenty of examples of Snapchat borrowing from Facebook’s playbook, as well as its executive ranks.

Facebook’s apparent fascination with its younger rival isn’t that novel. This is how incumbents act. Remember Google+? And it’s not unique to tech companies. Since Toyota struck a nerve with the Prius’s aerodynamic, fuel-efficient profile, all automakers are seemingly racing to design the tiniest rear windshield possible.

But a platform as established as Facebook co-opting a bunch of features from a company a tenth its size shows how much of a chord Snapchat has struck among people, how much the social landscape has changed since the days when Facebook had walls and how Facebook has gone about not only remaining relevant over the past 12 years but becoming even more relevant.

A year before news broke that Facebook tried to buy Snapchat, in December 2012, Facebook put out Poke. People could use Poke to send messages, photos and videos to friends that expire seconds after they’re opened. Facebook shut down its copy of Snapchat’s flagship feature in May 2014. No biggie. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that Poke was “more of a joke.” Mmm-kay. Except that it wasn’t the last time Facebook would try out expiring posts specifically or try to bite Snapchat’s style generally.

Instagram direct messaging
Snapchat and Instagram both started out as photo-sharing apps, but with a big difference. Snapchat was private, and Instagram was public. Then, in December 2013 — six months after Instagram added video, as Snapchat already had, a couple months after Snapchat opened up publicly with Stories and a month after news broke of the failed Snapchat deal — Instagram added a way to privately share photos and videos.

Snapchat didn’t only take off because people could set their messages to automatically delete. They could also annotate them with drawings and text captions. So in June 2014, Facebook was like “us too!” and released Slingshot. But Slingshot wasn’t a straight copy of Snapchat’s annotated messages. Facebook changed things up by making it so that you had to send a reply message in order to view the initial message. That’s a weird wrinkle, because how would you know how to reply without seeing what you’re replying to first? But it also meant Facebook could say Slingshot wasn’t a total Snapchat clone — at least for a few months, until Facebook removed the “reply first” requirement.

Facebook Messenger video sharing
Until May 2014, people could only send photos and videos within Snapchat. And until June 2014, people could only send text messages and photos within Facebook Messenger. Then Facebook added the ability to send 15-second video clips within Messenger. That’s more than Snapchat’s 10-second limit. Different!

Expiring posts
Poke wasn’t the only time Facebook tried to cop Snapchat’s ephemeral feature. In September 2014, the social network tested expiring posts in its main app. But the expiration window was a lot longer than Poke’s. The earliest Facebook would let a post expire was after an hour. Facebook’s interest in expiring posts didn’t last much longer. The company never converted the pilot test into an official product, marking one of several times when Facebook tried something Snapchatt-y and it — or its users — decided against it.

On Snapchat, a photo alone is kinda boring when you can add stuff to it like sketches, text, filters (which Instagram had already popularized) and stickers. Facebook had already tried to get in on the sketch-and-text game with Slingshot. With the December 2014 launch of Stickered, it added a way for people to add emoji-like illustrations to the photos they send in Messenger and offered a larger library than Snapchat’s, which was bulked up in March 2016.

By the time Facebook rolled out Riff in April 2015, Stories had become a major key to Snapchat’s success, with its Live Stories collections of various people’s posts around a single event or location becoming a new analog to traditional TV. Riff wasn’t a complete ripoff of Snapchat’s Live Stories. While Live Stories were curated by Snapchat’s in-house team and could feature snaps from anyone, Riff let people append their own clips to a friend’s video. Facebook may have borrowed the idea of curated clips from Snapchat, but it actually — preemptive apology for the pun — created its own riff on it.

Live event feeds
In August 2015, Facebook tried out its own take on Snapchat’s Live Stories. Like Snapchat’s feature that curates photos and videos publicly shared from a live event like a football game or awards ceremony, Facebook’s initial test around Lollapalooza pulled together posts from public figures like artists performing at the music festival, as well as people’s friends who were on site. Both Snapchat’s and Facebook’s products let people see what’s going on at an event without actually being there. Both do that by pulling content from the people who actually are there. But Facebook told The Wall Street Journal that including friends’ posts is what made its live-event feed different from Snapchat’s. Not untrue.

Vertical video
People used to complain about YouTube videos shot in portrait mode. Then Snapchat came along and — with eventual help from Twitter’s Periscope and Meerkat — popularized vertical video as the mobile-native video format. Last year, YouTube and Facebook joined the trend, and eventually, so did Instagram.

Stickers, filters and text on photos
After dabbling in altered photos with Slingshot and Stickered, in June 2015, Facebook finally made it so that people could Snapchat-ify their photos within Facebook’s flagship app. Facebook’s photo-editing tools didn’t offer all the options Snapchat provided, but Facebook was just getting started.

Doodle on photos
Doodles! Finger-drawn sketches atop photos and videos were Snapchat’s thing, to the point that “Snapchat artists” became a thing. Now, it was Facebook’s thing too, marking the second time Facebook copped Snapchat’s feature. As The Verge pointed out when this feature was introduced in Facebook’s mobile apps in October 2015, even the slider used to pick colors isn’t much different on Facebook versus Snapchat.

Masquerade acquisition
You’ve been reading this list. So you know that when Snapchat introduced Lenses in September 2015, and everyone — including celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Kate Hudson and Serena Williams, as well as brands like Gatorade — started using them, it was only a matter of time before Facebook matched Snapchat’s feature for people to animate their selfies. Unlike the other examples, though, in March 2016, Facebook went out and bought a company, Masquerade, to keep pace in this ridiculous arms race.

Facebook Messenger codes
In January 2015, as part of its push to become a more public platform a la Twitter and Facebook, Snapchat brought QR codes back from the dead as an easier way for people to start following others. Earlier this month, as part of its push to make Messenger a more public platform, Facebook did the same for its messaging app, except it called them Messenger Codes instead of Snapcodes and made them circular instead of square.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Tim Peterson
Tim Peterson, Third Door Media's Social Media Reporter, has been covering the digital marketing industry since 2011. He has reported for Advertising Age, Adweek and Direct Marketing News. A born-and-raised Angeleno who graduated from New York University, he currently lives in Los Angeles. He has broken stories on Snapchat's ad plans, Hulu founding CEO Jason Kilar's attempt to take on YouTube and the assemblage of Amazon's ad-tech stack; analyzed YouTube's programming strategy, Facebook's ad-tech ambitions and ad blocking's rise; and documented digital video's biggest annual event VidCon, BuzzFeed's branded video production process and Snapchat Discover's ad load six months after launch. He has also developed tools to monitor brands' early adoption of live-streaming apps, compare Yahoo's and Google's search designs and examine the NFL's YouTube and Facebook video strategies.

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