Facebook’s pursuit, rejection, and subsequent mission to bury Snapchat is starting to resemble a teenage courtship gone bad. After Snapchat declined Facebook’s offer to buy the company last year for $3 billion, the social media titan launched a series of initiatives to take down the ephemeral messaging app. Its latest attempt, Slingshot, was accidentally released through the iTunes store on Monday before being quickly taken down.
Since Facebook’s IPO in May 2012, investors have worried about a decline in the number of adolescent Facebook users. Statista reported that between 2011 and 2014, Facebook experienced a 25 percent decline within the 13-17 year old demographic (from 13.1 million users to 9.8 million) and a 7.5 percent decrease among 18-24 year olds (from 45.4 million users to 42 million). The concern is the generation which most actively uses social media and is most coveted by the advertising dollars that sustain the industry, are leaving Facebook for more niche products such as Instagram, WhatsApp, and SnapChat. Facebook’s strategy has been to buy out these primary competitors, while allowing them to operate as separate entities. In the one situation where this has not worked, the company has made several attempts to create a similar product of its own.
Before Slingshot there was Poke, which was launched in December 2012 around the time Snapchat became the third most popular free app through iTunes. While Poke was technically sound, and could actually claim to perform better than Snapchat, it was unable to shake the stigma of being “second” in the ephemeral messaging space. Poke was officially removed from the iTunes App Store last month.
Slingshot’s fate might be different. Unlike Poke, Slingshot feels less like a carbon copy of Snapchat. Picture messages are accompanied by captions and drawings, and although they last no more than ten seconds, users must “unlock” messages in Slingshot by sending a picture back to the original sender. The app is rumored to be the second to emerge from Facebook’s new Creative Labs division, a Navy Seals-type unit comprised of company programmers. The first one, a news-reading app called Paper, was released a few months ago to praise from the tech community.
Aside from eliminating competition for social media users, Facebook’s decision to expand its messaging services does appear to fit into a broader business strategy. In February, the company completed the most expensive acquisition of an Internet start-up ever, spending $19 billion in cash and stock to buy the unlimited text messaging service WhatsApp. To many, it was a head-scratcher; despite having over 400 million monthly active users, WhatsApp generated less than $20 million in sales last year. To others, it was a smart bet on the future.
“The future of the Internet is mobile and the future of mobile is instant messaging,” says Riku Salminen, the CEO of the Finnish messaging service, Jongla, “IM will be more important than email is to the desktop generation.” But even as Salminen’s prediction crystallizes, there is an issue that the email generation has not quite figured out: how do you monetize messaging, especially ones that dissolve in ten seconds or less?