Yesterday Facebook released a new app, called Slingshot. One could charitably call it Facebook's entry into the "ephemeral app" genre, in which photos and videos are intentionally impermanent, in contrast to our Twitter and Instagram and Facebook feeds, which exist forever. One could uncharitably, and probably more accurately, call it Facebook's second attempt to copy Snapchat. But that's all in the short view. In the long view, Slingshot is yet another attempt for Facebook to establish its own stand-alone products like another ubiquitous tech giant: Google.
Slingshot allows you to send self-destructing images and videos, taken and then edited with your smartphone. You can take a quick selfie or a video, draw something wacky on it, then send it to a friend, and know that it won't exist on any permanent feed, nor are there options for your friend to download it for keeping after he or she watches it.
The main difference between Slingshot and Snapchat is this curious concept of forced participation. Let's say someone sends you a Slingshot photo or video (which we will call "Slings"). In order to view it, you have to send back one of your own. Until you play along, you can't view whatever that person sent you. In theory, this is a way to encourage users to keep sending Slings back and forth, and to maybe negate the lonely hollow feeling you feel inside when you send a message and don't get a response. In practice, it feels disjointed and a little desperate, as if the only way to ensure real communication is to require it. It is not unlike getting a Facebook friend request from someone you don't know. Why are you making this demand of me? Why can't you let this happen organically?
The app has a lot of problems—including the exceedingly confusing interface. Initially navigating through the app is more an act of guessing than one of intuition. At times the screen is split between the camera and your friends list in a jarring, Frankensteined manner. And again, why am I being forced to send something before I see something? It's mine. I want to see it. I was sent it. Give it to me. If a company is going to release standalone apps for its products, it either needs to be an original concept, or address a specific, significant problem in its space to get a foothold. But its unclear how much Facebook is even concerned about that.
Slingshot is the latest in a long line of Facebook spinoff apps, which feel like pieces of a whole. Some of the pieces make sense, and might be better served folded into a larger, all-emcompassing app. Some are one-off ripoffs of existing popular apps. Some are ambitious experiments without a clear goal.
Slingshot isn't even the first Snapchat clone. It is the second, after an app called Poke, which, though cleaner and less buggy than Snapchat in Snapchat's early days, offered no real differentiators or improvements and was quietly killed last year. Then there was Facebook Camera, an attempt to turn photos uploaded to Facebook into something more like Instagram. It was killed alongside Poke. Still existing apps include Messenger, which is a messenger, and Paper, which is a prettier version of the regular Facebook app. There was also Facebook Home, which promised to turn your regular Android homescreen into streams of shared links, and photos and updates from your Facebook feeds. Some of these apps, including Slingshot and Paper, came out of Facebook's new experimental office, which encourages this sort of playing around.
But it often has seemed to be just that: playing around. Facebook has, in a few short years, become notable for its ability to create lots of industry buzz around a new app, and then promptly stop paying attention to it. Facebook Camera! What ever happened to that? Facebook should have learned by now that it can't simply make a Facebook version of an already successful idea and expect it to succeed, not even if it has that sheen of big-money polish that only a massive company like Facebook can provide.
There is another company with one central business that has routinely churned out identifiable, stand-alone products: Google. It pioneered the idea of an experimental team within the larger business (the central moneymaker being Google search and its ads) that's tasked with making crazy stuff that may or may not work. Think of Gmail, Google Maps, Google Chrome, Google Now, Google Chat (now called Hangouts), Android, Google Docs (now folded into Google Drive), and Google Analytics, which are all either by far the most successful in their category or near to it.
The biggest difference between Google and Facebook is that Google aims to solve a specific problem with its products, and then keeps on developing those products, regardless of the initial reaction. Its products, with few exceptions, get years of support, and many have built their way into quality and success over time. Android was near unusable at launch; now it's the most popular mobile operating system in the world. Chromebook was laughed at—a computer with only a browser? Who'd want that? Now it's quickly becoming the best cheap laptop out there.
Facebook doesn't do this. Facebook Poke and Camera were thin ideas, but received no major updates throughout their short lives. Home was introduced with a huge splash, but when they didn't immediately become major successes, Facebook lost interest. Paper is precariously heading down that same path. When confronted with some numbers indicating that Paper had lost users since launch, Facebook denied the specific numbers and said, "We haven't started to focus on growth." Paper's biggest update to date came this week. It fixes a few bugs and adds a section that gathers trending topics on Facebook and shows them to you.
Facebook's attempts to step outside itself and become a company that excels at more than one thing, a la Google, is commendable. The problem is, most of Facebook's standalone products lack inspiration and the company has a seeming inability to transform the ones with a germ of a good idea (like Paper) into something great. Facebook will never become Google by simply churning out Facebook-ified copies of existing apps and then walking away as the app's userbase, artificially swollen due to the press swarm that accompanies anything Facebook does, slowly trickles away over time.