When Facebook first released ephemeral communication app Slingshot, there was one particularly risky feature that its product developers loved and consumers — from the get go — hated: The boomerang effect. In order to view a friend’s photo or video, you had to send one first.
It was the social network’s big bold experiment to invert the internet content creation triangle, better known as the one percent rule. The general guiding principle on the web is that only one percent of the users make the content that’s viewed by everyone else. Although the inequality between creators and consumers has probably shrunken in the age of social media and the selfie generation, it’s still a golden rule by which people build online communities and services. By requiring users to shoot a selfie before seeing a selfie, Slingshot insured that wouldn’t be the case. When introducing the app on Facebook, the product team’s opening post said, “Because you sling something to see something on #Slingshot, everyone is a creator and no one is just a spectator.”
The boomerang effect was one of the only features that made Slingshot distinct from its competitor Snapchat. Don’t just take my word for it. In the first blog post about the app, the company said, “When everyone participates, there’s less pressure, more creativity and even the little things in life can turn into awesome shared experiences. This is what Slingshot is all about.” (Emphasis added). The app should probably have just been called Boomerang.
But three months after launching, Slingshot has lost that unique feature. On Thursday Facebook released an update that shelved the boomerang feature. Users can send “locked” or “unlocked” posts, deciding whether their friends have to boomerang a response before they can view a post. Slingshot is now blatantly a Snapchat copy, aside from a mass sending option that lets you target all your friends at once with a picture or video, and a “react” button where you can react to a post. The company sees Slingshot as a big experiment, released out of Facebook’s Creative Labs, and from the beginning it intended to iterate quickly based on user feedback.
However, by essentially removing the most experimental part of Slingshot and turning it into another ephemeral messaging imitator, what does Slingshot have left to offer? Some are, perhaps rightfully so, calling this the last gasp of a dying app.
The shift in product vision isn’t a surprise. As I reported previously, the app sadly sank down the charts after its initial hyped launch, covered by no less than the likes of CNN, Fortune, and The Guardian. Without continued media attention to keep its download numbers afloat, Slingshot followed a similar trajectory as Poke, Facebook’s former failed effort to battle Snapchat.
Its shift into irrelevance isn’t anything that will slow Facebook’s ascent, but the reason we’re all paying attention is because we’re waiting to see whether Facebook, as a big public company, can still innovate these days. It’s been able to make money off mobile and increase user engagement with its core product, but that’s not the same as getting ahead of trends. We want to see Facebook inspire consumers to adopt something new.
With Slingshot quietly pivoting, it appears that for now, the company’s best attempt is to buy its way into innovation. See: Oculus Rift.