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Facebook’s Snapchat Envy Shows In Its New Stories And Camera

Like Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger before it, Facebook is co-opting Snap’s bright ideas and trying to make them its own.

For years now, Mark Zuckerberg has been confidently predicting that within half a decade, video will become the dominant form of content that folks share on Facebook. That expectation has led to features such as Facebook Live video streaming. But when it comes to encouraging people to share, the app’s primary call to action–the question “What’s on your mind?” and a text field–has continued to emphasize words over visuals.

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Today, that’s changing–and the change comes in a form that looks an awful lot like Snapchat, an app that has emphasized effortless, high-volume visual storytelling all along.

With an update to its mobile apps that’s rolling out worldwide today, Facebook is dumping its generic built-in camera feature for a much fancier one with special effects, interactive animations, and the ability to mark up still images and video clips with text and doodles. It’s letting you bundle up your imagery into mini-multimedia shows called Stories–an idea invented by Snapchat that Facebook has cheerfully co-opted and already integrated into Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger. Both Facebook Stories and a new form of private messaging involve content that disappears rather than sticking around forever, making Facebook more of a venue for the type of ephemeral sharing that made Snapchat famous in the first place.

Camera Up Front

Snap, which likes to call itself a camera company, is so all-in on the camera as the center of its universe that it dumps you right into a live viewfinder the moment you launch the app. Facebook hasn’t done anything so radical. But it did put a camera icon at the top left of the interface, displacing the Messenger icon, which is now at the top right. That lets you get to the new camera feature without dealing with the “What’s on your mind?” box. (You can also launch the camera by swiping.)

The tools that Facebook offers for fooling around with photos and videos are in the same mold as their Snapchat antecedents, and there are dozens of them, including the sort of augmented-reality effects that let you place anything from eyeglasses on your face to a sleepy dog on top of your head. Facebook says that the lineup of stuff will change weekly. And rather than giving everyone in the world the same set of set of elements, it’s adjusting what you get based on where you live. (Users in Ireland, for instance, will get overlays that exclaim “Gas!” and “Good craic,” two phrases that are as culturally relevant there as something like OMG is in the U.S.)

Once you’ve shot a still or video and dressed it up, you have several options. The default is to publish it to your Facebook timeline, where it will appear in an oversized form alongside everything else you’ve posted and follow the same privacy rules you’ve set up for other types of content. Like everything else in your timeline, items you post using the camera will stay there unless you delete them.

You can also choose to add your new creation to an immersive full-screen Story, where it’ll be visible only to people on Facebook who you’ve specified as your friends and–following the rules of ephemerality established by Snapchat–will disappear after 24 hours. Your friends’ Stories appear as a horizontal strip of circles above the news feed, in a format that’s nearly identical to the one Instagram uses for its version of the feature.

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Another form of ephemeral sharing lets you send anything you create with the new camera to one or more friends as a private message, using a new feature that Facebook, like Instagram, calls Direct. People can comment on the items you share via Direct, but once the conversation ends, the items go poof.

A Little Glitz

Like Instagram’s Kevin Systrom, Facebook product manager Connor Hayes doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge where the concept for Stories came from. “This is something that Snapchat really pioneered,” he said at a small media event that Facebook held to preview the new features to journalists. Facebook’s stance is that Stories, and Stories-style features like WhatsApp’s Status and Messenger’s Day, will become a standard mode of communications that people will expect to find in all their social apps.

Which raises a question: If Stories will wind up everywhere in similar form, how can one apps’s variant distinguish itself from others? In the case of Facebook, part of the vision seems to lie in ramping up the production values and technological polish of special effects such as the virtual pizza slices you can send flying into your mouth to signal to a friend that you’re hungry.

“This is really a marriage of art and technology, and we have an opportunity to put together some of the highest-quality effects we can,” said director of art and animation Kristen Spilman at the press event.

Facebook is going to add content based on a bunch of high-profile upcoming movies: Alien: Covenant, Despicable Me 3, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Power Rangers, Smurfs: The Lost Village, and Wonder Woman. It’s also incorporating interactive filters based on the work of two artists, Hattie Stewart and Douglas Coupland. And Spilman emphasized the research that the company is putting into artwork for specific countries, such as an authentic Carnival headdress that will be available in Brazil.

As ambitious as Facebook’s new camera and foray into Stories are, it’s not tough to identify ways in which the company could build them out in the months and years to come. One example: Unlike Instagram Stories, these ones can’t (yet) incorporate live video. The company says that it’ll make decisions about the features’ future based on user feedback to this first pass.

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Hayes told me that the insta-success of Instagram Stories, which racked up 150 million daily users within months of their launch, helped give the company the confidence to bring many of the same ideas into Facebook. Given that the Facebook mobile app reaches 1.15 billion users a day, Facebook Stories has a shot at being the most widely used incarnation of the concept of them all. But that’ll only happen if Facebook has figured out how to integrate all this in a way that’s not likely to leave average users feeling disoriented or annoyed. (Both WhatsApp and Messenger have caught some flak for their initial versions of Snapchat-ization.)

For all it owes to Snapchat as filtered through Instagram, what I saw at Facebook’s sneak peek looked promising. And if users take to the new features, the more video-centric era that Zuckerberg loves to talk about could start to feel like reality.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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