Facebook’s tactical assault on Snapchat is nearly complete. This morning, the big blue giant launched a trio of features: a fun new effects-filled camera that sits a swipe over from your News Feed; a place for disappearing stories; and a way to share straight from your camera to your friends. That’s a lot of words to say a simple thing: Facebook just launched Snapchat. You almost have to wonder if Evan Spiegel, Snap CEO and newly minted super-rich dude, feels just a little bit proud.
Facebook’s been testing the update for a couple of months, and it does manage to differentiate at least some from its snapspiration. It has some very cool filters and masks, thanks to Facebook’s acquisition of an app called MSQRD, and you can post straight from the camera to the News Feed if you capture something you want to live forever. Mostly, though, it’s just Snapchat. It’s also, officially, the way the world communicates now.
Whether Facebook copied Snapchat is the wrong debate. Of course Facebook copied Snapchat. Just like Messenger Day copied Snapchat, and Instagram Stories copied Snapchat, and WhatsApp Status copied Snapchat. And those are just the apps owned by Facebook! What matters is that Facebook has once and for all, irrevocably and forevermore, cemented the idea that Snapchat pioneered. It’s also taken that idea and made it a little more palatable. Snapchat has always been intentionally inscrutable, a maze of buttons and swipes that you had to learn before you were in the club. Facebook is straightforward, simple, and a little boring, the way Facebook always is.
It may appear as just a bunch of circles above your News Feed, but this is a completely new way of using the biggest social platform on the planet. Pretty soon everyone will use them, or at least know what they are. Stories now belong in every social app and platform—they’re on the list next to status updates, emoji reactions, and trolls.
In fact, snapping may well supersede all of those. The future of communication doesn’t start with two thumbs and a keyboard. It starts with a camera lens and your goofy mug. And by spreading the format across all its apps, Facebook’s all but ensuring everyone will encounter this new idea in some way. When those circles materialize above your feed, your curiosity will pique just enough to see what’s going on. Then you’re in. Suddenly you understand a core piece of every Facebook app.
Not everything Facebook does takes over the world, of course. But when you have a network nearing two billion people, even a relative failure can garner a couple hundred million users. Facebook Stories could barely make a dent and still be bigger than Snapchat (just like Instagram did). That should scare Snap, which already struggles to broaden its base beyond ephemeral teens. It’s also scary from an advertising perspective: Facebook’s not monetizing the new camera features yet, but it will, and it will be selling a nearly identical format to a much larger audience. One that Facebook has learned to target with laser precision.
There have never been more places to post ephemeral video. Facebook’s plan is to become the default answer through sheer size—though there will always be Instagram (which is also Facebook) for sharing with a more tightly curated circle of friends.
There’s also the matter of how Camera and Stories will change Facebook itself. To thrive, Facebook needs to find new ways to get real people to share more, especially in the face of more competition than ever—and the inevitable inertia that comes with knowing your posts will be seen by your exes, your old bosses, and your high school teachers. Ephemeral, disappearing stories, plus the ability to only share them with a select group of people, should help.
Like an ocean freighter, Facebook can only pivot so fast. But could these new features reinvigorate the News Feed? Could they could it replace TV the way Live didn’t? How will the #influencers, the social media stars, and the celebrities gravitate to it?
We’ll find out soon enough. For now, though, welcome ephemeral video to the mainstream. Teach your grandparents how to use it, get ready to see your teachers and exes popping up in your Direct inboxes. And watch for an uptick in all kinds of camera-first communication, because the selfie lens is the new text box. Facebook says so, and so it is.