WhatsApp

WhatsApp’s new feature continues Facebook’s Snapchat mimicry

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Written by Kamil Arli

The New York Times is reporting that Facebook offered $3 billion to buy the ephemeral messaging app Snapchat in 2013. Snapchat’s founder, Evan Spiegel, turned down the offer.

Ever since, Facebook and some of its top apps — including Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger — have been trying to tap into the explosively popular photo-sharing features pioneered by Snapchat.

THE LATEST SIGN OF THAT CAME ON MONDAY AS WHATSAPP

The latest sign of that came on Monday as WhatsApp, a mobile messaging application used by 1.2 billion people, unveiled a version of its Status feature that takes a significant number of cues from Snapchat. Similar to Snapchat’s Stories feature, WhatsApp’s Status now lets people share images, GIFs and videos as a status update, all of which last for 24 hours before disappearing.

The move follows a string of actions by Facebook to emulate Snapchat. In August, Instagram introduced a Stories feature that was a near exact copy of Snapchat’s. In December, Messenger revamped its look and feel to emphasize sending photos, just like Snapchat. As Snapchat’s parent company, Snap, has positioned itself as a camera company, Facebook has experimented with making a camera feature the first thing people see when opening up the social network’s main app.

EVEN IF IMITATION IS THE HIGHEST COMPLIMENT, WHATSAPP EXECUTIVES ARE NOT ADMITTING

Even if imitation is the highest compliment, WhatsApp executives are not admitting it. “We build things because we really hope people will want to use them even more,” Randall Sarafa, a product manager at WhatsApp, said in an interview about the new version of Status. Avoiding any direct mention of Snapchat, he added, “We don’t really think about building things for other reasons.”

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A WhatsApp spokeswoman declined to comment further.

A Snapchat spokeswoman declined to comment on the similarities with WhatsApp, and a press officer for Instagram declined to comment beyond past public statements. But the Facebook Messenger spokeswoman Jennifer Hakes said: “In some ways, the camera is now replacing the keyboard. As more people use Messenger in their everyday lives, we wanted to make it faster, simpler and more fun to send photos and videos — so we built the new Messenger camera.”

Facebook’s moves are unfolding at a critical moment for Snap. The company is set to go public next month in what is likely to be one of the biggest technology public offerings since those of the social media service Twitter in 2013 and the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba in 2014. Investors have been grousing about how unprofitable Snap is and how its number of users appears small. On Sunday, Sriram Krishnan, a top Snapchat product manager, said on Twitter that he was leaving the company.

Facebook’s emulation of Snapchat has a broader significance in that the network and its apps are moving toward a more visual and interactive form of communication.

For years, applications like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter were primarily text-based. Twitter rose to popularity by capitalizing on SMS short-form texts, and the majority of the more than than 50 billion WhatsApp messages sent on a daily basis are text-based.

But in 2011, Mr. Spiegel saw a new possibility when he and Bobby Murphy, his Stanford University fraternity brother, founded Snapchat. Their focus was on making it simple to send photos and videos to friends. Making the camera the focus — unlike competitors, Snapchat makes it the first thing you see after opening the app — allows people to send images much faster than with other apps, which often require two or three steps to open the camera.

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Snapchat’s emphasis has also been on ephemerality, with photos and stories disappearing shortly after they are sent. That focus has made it far easier for people to send more photos to one another because they do not have to worry about those images sticking around forever. Snapchat’s users send more than 2.5 billion messages and images each day, according to the company’s initial public offering prospectus.

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WhatsApp’s Status now lets people share images, GIFs and videos as a status update, all of which last for 24 hours before disappearing.

Competitors like Instagram, the photo-sharing site owned by Facebook, eventually realized how popular different models of sharing photos and multimedia status updates had become. After reports of a decline in photo-sharing inside its app, Instagram began making changes to keep users coming back and sharing more photos.

Last March, Instagram switched to an algorithm-driven, personalized feed of photos, a shift from the reverse-chronological order it had historically used. In August, Instagram introduced its Snapchat look-alike, Stories.

How much coordination there is within Facebook and among WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger over how to grapple with Snapchat is unclear. While executives at the company regularly meet with Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, to check in and give updates on long-term product strategy, they have said in past interviews that they maintain a level of workplace autonomy.

“We operate in a largely independent way from Facebook,” Mr. Sarafa, of WhatsApp, said in a recent interview.

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Still, many of the product executives at these companies acknowledge that some of their updates are not entirely original and give credit to Snapchat for creating a new kind of “format.”

In an interview in August, Kevin Systrom, a founder and the chief executive of Instagram, did not mention Snapchat by name but acknowledged that “other companies deserve all the credit” for popularizing disappearing photos and videos.

“This format unlocks a new version of creativity for us,” Mr. Systrom said. “I think Instagram will be judged by where we go from here and what we make of it in the future.”

Instagram’s Stories product — the Snapchat look-alike — has since become a hit: More than 150 million people use it daily. In its initial public offering filing, Snap cited the direction of Instagram as a potential risk factor to its own growth.

At WhatsApp, the Status feature was originally conceived as a text-based away message, similar to the one in AOL’s Instant Messenger product of the 1990s, which made it easy to let friends know if you were around to text or if you were too busy.

The updated Status feature replaces that text with richer multimedia. Now, as with Snapchat’s Stories, WhatsApp users can post photos, videos and GIFs as their status, which lasts for 24 hours before disappearing. WhatsApp users can also send their status updates as messages to individual or multiple friends at once, much the way Snapchat’s messaging system is structured.

WhatsApp recognizes that its latest feature may not be completely original. But it still hopes it will bring the app similar success.

“Obviously we’re all seeing broad adoption of this format across the industry right now,” Mr. Sarafa said. “Our hope is that with this update, people will find new ways to share and consume media on WhatsApp, too.”

About the author

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Kamil Arli

Editor of DigitalReview.co. Digital Media Consultant

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