slingshot

Facebook has shown once again that it’s better at buying companies than copying them.

The company has updated Slingshot, the mobile application it released in June to compete with Snapchat without directly copying the startup’s product, to become a bona fide Snapchat clone. Instead of the transactional model the app introduced, which required users to share an image with their friends before they could see whatever it was their friends shared with them, the app now allows people to share self-destructing photos which can be viewed as soon as they’re sent.

Setting aside the implications for Facebook at large, it’s sad to see the company backing down from Slingshot’s original purpose. It was unique, and it might have benefited both consumers and Facebook if it had ever caught on with users, as I wrote when the app was first released:

Slingshot doesn’t focus on instant communications, like so many other services do. It’s instead focusing on authentic interactions that show people as they truly are instead of allowing them to present the digital highlights reel Wortham describes. There is no lonely lurking, and there is no opportunity to share only the best moments, there is just a snapshot of someone’s life.

Facebook’s motivation for creating something like Slingshot probably has little to do with its users’ mental health. The more they visit the service the more advertisements it can serve, so there’s little reason for the company to introduce a product that defends their fragile egos. But encouraging those users to share more, and using that data, is a worthwhile goal unto itself.

This isn’t the first time Facebook has failed to compete with Snapchat. It also released Poke, an application that was little more than a redesigned version of the popular messaging application, and ultimately removed the app from distribution after it failed to attract the attention of most consumers. Facebook knows that it wants to get into Snapchat’s market — why offer to acquire the company for $3 billion otherwise? — but it’s incapable of doing so with any of its products.

But this problem isn’t limited to Snapchat. Facebook is actually just really bad at copying other companies. Its efforts to emulate Twitter and its public network have largely failed even though Twitter has proven itself more than capable of copying Facebook’s features. Its attempt to enter the mobile photo space fizzled, and it had to spend a couple hundred million dollars to acquire Instagram in 2012 before it could win that market. Facebook’s a great buyer and a poor copier.

It’s just a matter of time before Facebook decides to put Slingshot out of its misery and sends it to the same graveyard that Poke, Camera, and its other failed products have gone to rest. Maybe then it will be able to write Snapchat a check that the company can’t refuse to cash; it’s probably not going to be able to beat the company, so it might as well do everything it can to join it, or at least bring it into the corporate umbrella it’s been holding up for Instagram for a few years now.

[photo by Michael Coghlan]