Facebook's latest attempt to beat Snapchat at its own game feels more like a content-sharing boomerang than a slingshot, but so be it. Maybe Slingshot is a snappier way to get its point across and attract new users in the process.
Will Facebook's Slingshot challenge Snapchat and help make the social network cool with a younger audience again?
For years Facebook has been trying and failing to copy Snapchat's ephemeral messaging app. Slingshot is the company's latest shot across the bow.
The first thing you'll notice about Slingshot is that Facebook's involvement is hard to find. There's not even an option to login with Facebook. You have to supply your phone number and create a username to get started.
The app is purposefully stripped down to the bare essentials, letting you send photos and 15-second videos to one friend or many. There is one catch, however. You must reciprocate before you can view any content shared with you.
"With Slingshot, we wanted to build something where everybody is a creator and nobody is just a spectator," the Slingshot team explains in a blog post. "When everyone participates, there's less pressure, more creativity and even the little things in life can turn into awesome shared experiences... Photos and videos that don't stick around forever allow for sharing that's more expressive, raw and spontaneous. We can connect the same way we like to live: in the moment."
A Disappearing Act With a Catch
Photos and videos shared on Slingshot won't automatically disappear within a matter of seconds. Content can be revisited until the recipient or sender deletes the feed. Facebook will also eventually delete the photo or video from its servers, but not until it remains unviewed for 30 days. Unlike Snapchat, users are not notified if a recipient saves a screenshot of your photo or video, however.
[Related: Snapchat Must Either Grow Up or Risk Disappearing]
Every action within the app comes with some form of sonic feedback. Cartoon-like noises and swooshes are followed by a Muzak-inspired track that plays when you open the drawing tool. The entire user experience was built with noticeable cues from modern design. Swipes replace most of the actions delivered by buttons and links in years past. There's little if any need to swipe out of the main screen unless you want to add or invite new people.
Slingshot will scan your phone contacts and Facebook account (with permission) to find friends, but the app also lets you send a sling to anyone by username. Once your account is established the app will open to the camera view with small counter at the top indicating how many messages you could view by replying. If no slings are pending, a short message appears instead encouraging you to "take a shot!"
You can shoot a photo by tapping on your screen or tap and hold to record video. And yes, there's a small link to toggle between front- and back-facing cameras to shoot a selfie. Slings can be sent with multiple lines of text or a drawing designed with a nifty tool on the right-hand column that provides options for color and brush size.
Slingshot packs another unique feature -- the reaction shot -- directly into a split-screen view. Users will see the top half of the original sling and can send their reaction with the bottom half of the screen -- paving the way for many epic two-faced mash-ups.
[Related: Social Media Getting More Spontaneous and Less Personal]
Never-Ending Back and Forth
The app feels playful and sleek at first use, but that's almost a requirement considering the new sharing behavior Facebook wants to encourage. Facebook tried to beat Snapchat with an almost exact copy of its model before, but its self-destructing messaging app Poke never took off. Facebook pulled the plug on Poke last month, about 17 months after it first launched and seven months after Snapchat rebuffed its multi-billion dollar acquisition offer.
Facebook is walking a fine line now, doing everything it can to develop a promising alternative to Snapchat without failing miserably in a cyclical fashion. The new behaviors being encouraged this time around are a smart move, but reciprocation and reactions may not be enough to pass the muster.
The sling-back requirement helps differentiate Slingshot from its obvious competitors, but it could also turn users off when they're given the option to either be creative or reply with something mundane to simply unlock what's been shared with them.
Living in the moment isn't always about having the last word. Imagine not being able to hear what someone says until you have a response ready to share. Then imagine that person not being able to hear what you just said without saying something back first. That's how Slingshot works and it goes on and on.
[Related: Is There Any Digital Marketing Value in New Breed of Social Apps?]
Slingshot's emphasis on reciprocation and reactive addictive sharing makes for an awkward conversation flow. While the mechanics for that never-ending back and forth are rigidly defined, how Slingshot's ephemerality feature works is left mostly unclear.
Those against-the-grain decisions appear to be deliberate. The team that built Slingshot at Facebook Creative Labs even mentions Snapchat by name, perhaps unintentionally admitting the fact that Snapchat remains the leading influencer and platform for ephemeral messaging.
Awkward But Potentially Addictive
"We've enjoyed using Snapchat to send each other ephemeral messages and expect there to be a variety of apps that explore this new way of sharing. With Slingshot, we saw an opportunity to create something new and different: a space where you can share everyday moments with lots of people at once," the Slingshot team writes.
Indeed, Facebook is desperate to attract the younger users who are increasingly turned off by its core platform. To Facebook's chagrin, these users are finding solace in apps like Snapchat, Secret, Whisper and many others.
While these newer apps pose some semblance of a threat to Facebook, there's little to indicate that Facebook is actually feeling any pain on the bottom line. Whether it's a snap, secret, whisper or sling, the business models for these platforms are nascent or nonexistent. Snapchat is the furthest along of this bunch, but it's admittedly still in its early days.
Facebook still has a commanding and unparalleled reach in social media. Its advertising business is healthy and growing on a recurring basis. But down the line, those ads could be harder to sell if Facebook can't deliver the young, impressionable users that advertisers covet most.
Losing its cool with that audience will always be one of Facebook's biggest fears.
Matt Kapko covers social media for CIO.com. Follow Matt on Twitter @mattkapko. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook.
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