For nearly four years, Snapchat has been Facebook’s white whale.
The popular disappearing message startup rebuffed a $3 billion acquisition offer from Facebook in 2013. Snapchat’s service has since continued to grow rapidly by capturing the hearts – and thumbs – of the young audiences that advertisers love. Facebook has failed in several attempts at cloning Snapchat.
Now Instagram, the photo-sharing app owned by Facebook, is for the first time taking its own stab at Snapchat.
On Tuesday, Instagram introduced Instagram Stories, which lets people share photos and videos that have a life span of no more than 24 hours with friends who follow them. The service bears a striking resemblance – some might say it is a carbon copy – to Snapchat Stories, a photo-and video-sharing format where the stories also disappear after no more than 24 hours.
The move could ignite a head-to-head battle between Instagram and Snapchat, which have long lurked in each other’s territories but have not faced off directly. Both are mobile apps that use primarily visual mediums. Both became popular first with young people. And both are now trying to improve their businesses by increasing digital advertising in formats like Stories.
Kevin Systrom, co-founder and chief executive of Instagram, did not mention Snapchat by name in an interview about Instagram Stories, but obliquely referred to “competitors” and acknowledged that “other companies deserve all the credit” for popularizing disappearing photos and videos. It has been an area of interest for Instagram for some time, he said.
Instagram Stories aims to lower the bar for sharing all types of photos and video – and not just the carefully planned and painstakingly touched-up photographs that are typical of the service, Systrom said.
“Our mission has always been to capture and share the world’s moments, not just the world’s most beautiful moments,” he said. “Stories will alleviate a ton of the pressure people have to post their absolute best stuff.”
A spokeswoman for Snapchat declined to comment on Instagram’s new product.
When Instagram began nearly six years ago as a photo-sharing app – the first photo shared on the service was a square, semi-blurry photo of a dog, poorly framed and with little evidence of retouching – it became a place for people to publicly store their pictures and memories. The app quickly gained traction, and, in 2012, Facebook said it would buy Instagram for $1 billion in cash and stock. Today, Instagram has more than 500 million users.
Snapchat – led by Evan Spiegel, who co-founded it while an undergraduate at Stanford University – started in 2011. The private messaging service, with its disappearing photos, was the opposite of the public nature of social media services like Instagram. Young audiences flocked to Snapchat precisely because an unflattering photo sent to a friend would last for mere seconds rather than a lifetime, and would not show up for parents or a future employer to find.
As Snapchat has matured in recent years, with more than 150 million users who visit the app on a daily basis, it has become a dangerous foe to Facebook and Instagram. Snapchat, based in the Venice Beach neighborhood of Los Angeles, is now valued at around $19 billion and has released a number of advertising products, which brands have eagerly latched onto to experiment with video and facial recognition ads.
Snapchat Stories, a departure from the company’s original direct messaging service, has been a hit for essentially acting as a 24-hour photo and video diary viewable only by those who follow the user.
Beyond that, Snapchat Stories also collects photos and videos users have contributed from a particular event – say the Teen Choice awards – and stitches them together to form a narrative. The result feels more like a television show than a social media post; companies like AMC and Hewlett-Packard can buy ads that are placed in stories, much like commercials aired in original programming.
The rivalry between Snapchat and Instagram was evident in a report published last week from the investment banking firm Jefferies, which predicted that Snapchat’s growth could detract from Instagram’s advertising momentum by as soon as the fourth quarter of this year.
“Snapchat consists of a more active user base, which creates more content than the average Instagram user,” the report said. “Given its younger demographic, we think Instagram looks the most at-risk from the rise of Snapchat, especially on a longer-term basis.”
Instagram has also faced reports that the service has had a decline in photo sharing on its network in recent years, a worrisome trend for the company.
Instagram Stories is now available in a separate section of the app, where users can shoot photos or video, which, just like Snapchat, can be adorned with text or drawings. Those are then combined to create a story, which is viewable by friends for 24 hours. People can make stories public or private, and can choose if they want only a subsection of their followers to view them.
Systrom does not pretend that Instagram Stories is original. Instead, he said the narrative string of photos and video that disappear after 24 hours is a format, akin to the cascading feed-based model popularized by companies like Facebook and Twitter and eventually adopted by countless others. Silicon Valley, he said, is all about creating and adopting new formats to be tried and expanded.
“This format unlocks a new version of creativity for us,” he said. “I think Instagram will be judged by where we go from here, and what we make of it in the future.”