Is its new chat app a sign that Facebook’s falling behind?

Facebook Poke App
Facebook’s Poke app

Courtesy Facebook.

It’s pretty ballsy to call your sexting app Poke. That was my first reaction to the news last week that Facebook had launched a clone of Snapchat, the trendy smartphone app that lets you send photos and videos that self-destruct after a few seconds. Like most people born before the 1990s, I’m not a Snapchat user, and I’ve long assumed the worst about the app—that combining cameras; young people; and secret, self-destructing messages could only mean trouble.

Yet TechCrunch’s Jordan Crook persuasively argues that Snapchat has gotten a bad rap. Rather than sexting, teenagers are more likely using the app to safely explore the sort of silly, unguarded, and sometimes unwise ideas that have always occupied the teenage brain. Give teens credit for wanting to communicate with their friends in a manner that won’t haunt them forever. In other words, they’re chatting with Snapchat precisely because it’s not like chatting with Facebook.

If you think about Snapchat this way—as an app that young people are using for much more than sexting—Facebook’s interest in it becomes obvious. Indeed, Snapchat should scare the bejeezus out of Facebook. Here’s a company that’s winning millions of young adherents to a mode of online communication that is utterly alien from Facebook’s public, permanent interactions. Mark Zuckerberg can’t afford to let that happen. In order to realize its hundred-billion-dollar dreams, Facebook needs to forever dominate all of the world’s social interactions. Wherever two or more people are communicating—whether it’s by text, video, pictures, or through games or gifts—Facebook needs to be a part of their conversation. It needs to be especially vigilant against usurpers of young people, the vanguard that decides who’ll rule tomorrow’s Internet.

Hence, Facebook had to make Poke. Facebook created the app in just 12 days, reportedly after Snapchat turned down Facebook’s attempts to acquire the firm. Poke is ridiculously similar to Snapchat, a feature-for-feature copy that would make Xerox blush. Imitation isn’t unusual for Facebook; as I argued last year, Facebook constantly “roams the tech universe in search of interesting technology, then mercilessly assimilates all the best stuff into its ever-larger catalog of features.” Over the last couple years it has copied the defining ideas behind Foursquare, Twitter, Google+, Groupon, GroupMe, Instagram, Quora — and now Snapchat.

You might fault Facebook for cloning other companies’ ideas, but I don’t think mimicry is so bad. All tech firms, from Apple to Microsoft to Google, get ahead through a mix of innovation and imitation. The problem with Poke isn’t that Facebook had to copy Snapchat. The real problem—and it’s a big one—is that Facebook didn’t think of building something like Snapchat long ago, all by itself.

After all, the idea of conversations that leave no trace isn’t something Snapchat invented. It’s an age-old form of interaction, the stuff of spy novels and soap operas and classroom notes meant to be eaten after reading. The fact that it took someone else to invent an app for this kind of innately appealing chatter suggests that Facebook isn’t thinking expansively enough about its main product: people. Facebook’s success depends on its ability to predict how you, me, and everyone we know are going to want to behave online in the future. If it missed the inherent utility of something as simple as Snapchat, what other shifts in online behavior will Facebook never see coming?

To be sure, predicting human behavior is a tall order. We’re all fickle and prone to fads, and young people’s fervor for Snapchat could wane tomorrow. (See Chatroulette.) That’s precisely why Facebook likes to think of itself as a “platform,” not a product. Facebook keeps the “social graph” of all of our connections and it leaves it to other companies to build interesting products using that data. Snapchat’s very success shows that Facebook’s platform strategy is working quite well. The only reason that the app could acquire millions of users in a few months’ time is because Snapchat spread through each of its users’ Facebook friends. Instagram and Pinterest, the two other recent social-networking successes, also benefited tremendously from their users’ Facebook’s connections.

The trouble for Facebook is that when these Facebook-enabled apps get too big, they threaten the giant itself. Every photo that people were sharing through Instagram was a dagger at the heart of Facebook, the world’s largest photo site. That’s why Facebook attempted to copy Instagram—see its Camera app—and then had to buy it. Similarly, every message that you send to your Facebook friends through Snapchat is a lost opportunity for Facebook. That’s why Facebook had to squash it.

The fact that Facebook could build Poke in less than a couple weeks shows that it knows how to move quickly when it sees an opportunity. But Poke is already losing to Snapchat in the app standings. Like Facebook’s failed imitations of Instagram and Quora, Poke’s quick decline shows that if Facebook wants to stay on the vanguard of online communication, it needs to act even before it sees an opportunity—by the time somebody else has had success with something, Facebook’s version isn’t going to catch on.

How can Facebook do this? I think Zuckerberg ought to stand up a skunkworks team — a group of engineers, designers, and product managers whose sole mission is to create lots of small, interesting apps that offer new takes on online communication. (Or Facebook could buy Betaworks, the New York-based startup that already does this very well. In the last few years, that team has created Chartbeat, Bitly, and the new Digg, three sites that mine social and Web data to create novel experiences.) Facebook is never going to be able to anticipate all of the fads that hit the Web, nor should it make it its mission to do so. But such a team could at least try to come up with novel social networking ideas—because if Facebook doesn’t try, someone else will, and by the time Facebook recognizes the threat, it will be too late to do anything about it.

I don’t know if such a team would have created something like Snapchat. But considering how quickly it slapped Poke together, they very well could have. Facebook shouldn’t be ashamed that it had to copy Poke. But it should be ashamed that it never even tried to invent it.