It certainly seems that Facebook has been taking some 'inspiration' from Snapchat lately, and many of its new product launches and features have seemed rather familiar. At face value it has taken a slightly lazy approach to innovation, but I believe it actually reflects Facebook grappling with the same root cause that Snapchat uncovered: fundamental shifts in how people are sharing on social media.
In its early days Snapchat was coyly stereotyped as a way young people shared intimate images with one another, which would then self-destruct to protect their long-term modesty. It gave the platform a risqué appeal but was never a realistic explanation of why the app was catching on, not least because it was always pretty easy to work around this ‘security’. The magic of the app wasn't that it could guarantee secret posts which were never seen again, but that by allowing more everyday pictures to soon be forgotten it encouraged more casual sharing.
Whether intentionally or not, Snapchat was the perfect antidote to one of the great 'millennial' pressures - the public permanence of social media. Growing up in a world of Facebook and Instagram likes means a world where you constantly have to put on your best self and await wider judgement of it. Anything you share on your profile gets instantly & publicly assessed and is then held there as a permanent record. I'm sure we've all done things, or worn things, in our childhood that we're glad are only a distant memory now.
My younger cousin will agonise over a picture that he's posting on Instagram – taking several different versions, applying different filters, often even abandoning the task completely if he's not satisfied with the results. In the same amount of time he could have sent and received half a dozen Snaps, casually sharing something funny which grabs his attention or responding to a flippant image his friend just posted. The pressure for those posts to be perfect is completely removed.
Although Snapchat can feel quite alien to a first time user, it's actually much more closely aligned with how we normally communicate. We say things, people hear them, people choose whether to respond or not and then the original thing we said fades away. No one writes down and archives every conversation that they have, or every one-line quip they make over the day. If every conversation you had was being recorded, only to be looked up and relived by distant friends many weeks later, we'd probably all think twice before saying anything. It’s this insight and core shift in sharing that Facebook has been battling against, not necessarily Snapchat as a platform in itself (which to date only really challenges it among certain demographics in a few key markets).
The shift in attitudes is certainly not just happening among teenagers either. Over the past few years conversations of all kinds have slowly moved away from public Facebook walls into direct messages, or WhatsApp groups. My ‘On This Day’ flashbacks to a decade ago can feel quite jarring when they dig up a direct conversation between myself and a friend, playing out publicly on my wall. These days a friend or family member will nearly always send something interesting to me with one of these more private messages, rather than posting it on a wall for all to see, however innocuous it is.
The shift reflects not only improvements to, and wider adoption of, these messaging platforms but also a growing sense that we have over-extended our core social network, that really there are things we'd rather discuss with specific groups of people we know much more intimately. Google saw this too and tried to introduce the notion of ‘Circles’ of different contact sets in its own G+ social network, but because you couldn’t rely on all your friends being active there it never really took off.
The slowdown of public posting is an in internally acknowledged problem at Facebook known as a decrease in "original sharing". Newsfeeds today are more dominated by news sites and viral videos than they are truly personal updates from friends. Through various prompts (think pop-ups at the top of your newsfeed, or reminders of a friend's birthday) and even through advertising (notably a big push on Facebook Live in some markets over Christmas) Facebook been trying to get people to share more, but ultimately its biggest response has been to try and offer more nuanced ways for people to share on their own terms, and it's here that Snapchat has been a helpful inspiration.
With the acquisition of WhatsApp and the splitting out of Messenger, Facebook had equipped itself to dominate the messaging field, but Snapchat's continued growth showed that there was a middle ground it was missing out on. The introduction of Stories into Instagram is perhaps the most effective response to this challenge to date – building on a vast, already engaged audience, but giving them an opportunity to not just show the most perfect moments from their days but more of the reality that surrounds them. It appears to have been a big hit both with casual users and big established influencers, and trials at launching a similar experience into Messenger or even natively on Facebook are no doubt floating around.
For a while Snapchat still had a bit of a monopoly on crazy lens filters and effects, which are themselves a great encouragement to get people sharing more. Then the start-up MSQRD appeared as an independent challenger, offering similar effects but with the ability to share them across a wide range of platforms; Facebook’s response was to buy that too. Just before Christmas the power of the integration was truly revealed when Messenger rolled out a range of festive lenses native to its own app.
The bright yellow ghost of Snapchat certainly still has a cooler appeal than Facebook, and with business extensions like Spectacles, parent company Snap is exploring its vision to be a camera business not a social network. Facebook’s trump card remains its huge existing user base and truly global scale: any time it brings this sort of functionality to one of its core apps the best part of a billion people can immediately start using it.
With both businesses trying to reshape themselves around new consumer behaviours it remains to see which can truly bring fresh innovation as we head into 2017, but expect to have to deal with more ways of sharing rather than less for the time being. One core lesson for marketers is that they too needn’t be afraid of the shift to private sharing and ‘dark social’ – it’s just a natural evolution of sharing behaviour.
Jerry Daykin is global digital partner at Carat. He tweets @jdaykin