Me-Too Apps Will Boomerang On Facebook

Facebook launched its strategy of building stand-alone apps unit earlier this year with Paper, a social newsreader app. The initial product from the company's Creative Labs unit -- groups of small teams working on apps -- was well received by online reviewers and has since earned four out of five stars in the App Store.

Facebook's follow-up effort -- Slingshot -- has not met the high bar set by Paper. The Snapchat competitor introduced last month has gotten decidedly mixed reviews in the App Store, where the latest update has received 2.5 stars, and overall has a three-star rating. Not terrible, but Facebook would surely like to see a more favorable response for its latest app.

With the app focused on ephemeral messaging, there’s no question that Facebook is hoping to emulate the popularity of Snapchat. What’s interesting is that the social network’s own twist on the model -- having to “sling” back a photo or video in order to unlock the one sent by a friend -- is what irks people about the app.

“It’s so dumb to have to send a “sling” back to unlock,” noted one Slingshot review posted in the App Store. “You keep sending a photo of your ceiling to view what your friend sent, which might also be the same “unlocker” to see your own. You will never be able to have useful sharing!”

And another: “Some genius decided to include a feature that requires you to message back to unlock slings that are sent to you. Really? What am I supposed to send them when I don't even know what their sling is about?” Even users who otherwise praise the app take issue with its forced reciprocity. “Until this restriction is removed this app is going to be a bust,” wrote one user who gave Slingshot a four-star rating.

Some reviewers have also seen in the “sling for sling” requirement a cynical attempt by Facebook to generate more interaction through the app. Higher engagement could also eventually make it a more attractive advertising vehicle for marketers when Facebook decides to monetize the app.

Whatever the reason, it’s not leading to a good user experience. Eytan Oren, director of partnerships at the IPG Media Lab, noted in an e-mail exchange that the requirement to send content in order to unlock a message is leading some users to quickly create “subpar content” in order to immediately get messages.

“Facebook may need to actively encourage users to take a more patient approach focused on sharing quality content,” he said. Or ditch the feature altogether, as others have suggested. But that might be difficult for Facebook, since it has made forced reciprocity the signature feature of Slingshot. It would then more easily be labeled simply a Snapchat copycat.

Could Slingshot go the way of Poke, Facebook’s previous attempt at a Snapchat-like app that it pulled in May after a year after failing to gain traction? “Remember Slingshot? I feel the next time we hear about it, the headline will be about its removal/demise, engineering shifts,” quipped Mark Gurman, senior editor at 9to5Mac, in a tweet this week.

Facebook is not likely to give up on Slingshot so quickly, but it should realize that taking a me-too approach to creating apps is not a winning strategy. People are apt to stick with the original, even if it is known for being glitchy, like Snapchat. That's why Facebook tried to buy Snapchat, and did buy Instagram and WhatsApp.

But it can’t buy every popular app out there. Its internal efforts should focus on apps built around new ideas and new purposes. In an interview with Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself suggested as much, in discussing the role of Creative Labs.

"I think you’ll see a combination of us making some of these things that have been products for a while into first-class experiences. And you’ll see us exploring new areas that we felt we didn’t have the room to do before,” he said. Time to start on the latter.

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