For a time, it looked as if both Snapchat and Facebook could coexist peacefully in the social media space. Facebook was a place where users could network with friends, post about life events, and generally stay on top of things going on in their circles. Snapchat was a photo messaging app with a unique twist: the photos self-deleted after a brief period. Today, though, the two companies are locked in one of tech’s most epic rivalries.
Where did this battle start and what does it mean for the future of social networking?
Read on to find out.
The Offer You Can't Refuse
The Facebook vs. Snapchat conflict began in 2013, when Mark Zuckerberg offered to buy Snapchat for $3 billion. Forbes speculated that Zuckerberg wanted Snapchat because Facebook was losing the interest of the teenage audience and Snapchat was picking it up in spades. After starting as a college platform, Facebook eventually welcomed high school students and then everyone else. As more parents, teachers, and other adults hopped onto the network; youth interest began to slip.
A Snapchat acquisition might have reversed the trend, but it never happened. Snapchat's Evan Spiegel declined Zuckerberg’s offer. “There are very few people in the world who get to build a business like this,” Spiegel said at the time. “I think trading that for some short-term gain isn’t very interesting.”
The Movie 300
If you’ve seen the movie 300, it won’t take long to realize that the battle between Leonidas and Xerxes is similar to what we’re seeing right now between Spiegel and Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg: I can make you rich beyond all measure. It’s useless to resist my power.
Spiegel: Kneeling will be hard. Keep your $3 billion!
It didn’t go down exactly like this, but you get the point.
While Snapchat, thanks to the quick thinking Spiegel, has been able to hold its ground to this point, it is obvious that Facebook has been pushing to eliminate the company’s competitive edge.
Over the years, Facebook has adapted its own Messenger app, Instagram (which it acquired for $1 billion in April 2012), and WhatsApp (which it bought for $19 billion in February 2014) into more direct Snapchat competitors.
That competitive push escalated drastically in 2016 when Facebook started copying Snapchat features and using them in its own apps. This Business Insider article provides a timeline of Facebook copying Snapchat, from Snapchat’s “Lens” feature (which lets users take selfies with silly faces and effects) to simpler things such as camera interfaces.
The most blatant copy came when Facebook rolled out a “Stories” feature for Instagram. The Stories functionality is arguably Snapchat’s flagship feature, allowing users to compile multiple photos and videos into a chronological slideshow story. Instagram launched the same feature in August 2016—and quickly started beating Snapchat at its own game. Unsurprisingly, as of June 2017, Instagram Stories passed 250 million users to Snapchat’s 160 million.
Facebook recently delivered a haymaker by announcing that its users spend more time on the app each day (users under 25 spend 32 minutes and users 25 and over spend 24 minutes) than Snapchat users (users under 25 spend 30 minutes and users 25 and older spend 20 minutes).
So, what’s next for the Facebook/Snapchat rivalry?
Snap Inc, Snapchat’s parent company, has suffered dipping stock prices throughout the year. It's IPO has been characterized as “one of Wall Street’s biggest flops.”
Another and potentially bigger problem: Snapchat has warned that it may never be profitable. It hasn’t figured out how to monetize yet. Ads have become a pretty natural part of Facebook, while ads in Snapchat feel more intrusive; Facebook also makes a ton of money by collecting user data to empower advertisers, whereas Snapchat has nowhere near that level of information to apply.
Let’s face it: everyone wants to become famous on social media in today’s world. Instagram is the preferred method for making a run at fame. With Snapchat, it’s difficult to grow your audience and become famous due to a lack of discoverability (no hashtags or explore section) and the lack of social proof (hidden number of followers and likes), all of which are popular features of Instagram. With all this in mind, users have less incentive for investing time and effort into Snapchat. It really is that simple.
If Snapchat has a chance to catch up with Facebook, it might be by embracing future technologies—specifically augmented and virtual reality. In April 2017, Snapchat unveiled a “world lenses” feature, which allows users to see the world and take snaps with playful visual overlays. (Facebook quickly followed Snapchat down the AR wormhole.) But augmented reality is still in its early stages and it likely won’t be enough to help Snapchat beat the Facebook empire. Facebook will have the edge in AR and VR anyway, since unlike Snapchat, it has an open development platform called AR Studio for developers to create AR experiences and exponentially grow the platform.
Whether it's Zuckerberg who is consciously trying to crush the company that once turned down his offer or the rivalry between Facebook and Snapchat is simply business as usual, it doesn’t matter much either way.
"Talent imitates, genius steals." T.S. Eliot
Despite Facebook’s dirty habit of copying Snapchat’s features, Facebook has a wider user base, more resources, and a talent for repackaging its competitors' features in more convenient and integrated formats.
Only time will tell if Snapchat can make a comeback or suffer the same fate as the Spartans. In the movie 300, the hunchback betrays his own people to the enemy by guiding it through a hidden shortcut.
The fact of the matter is that, right now, Facebook is winning the war and can end it with a final fatal move if it pre-releases Snapchat's next new feature.