“If you take one thing away with you from today,” Mark Zuckerberg said Tuesday morning during the Facebook F8 Developers Conference keynote, “[it’s that] we’re making the camera the first augmented-reality platform.” This was a notable bit of verbal gymnastics — the effort Zuckerberg and company put into avoiding the word “Snapchat” throughout the morning was impressive. During the keynote introduction, Zuckerberg showed off a flurry of augmented-reality features, all of which will be added to the Facebook Camera. The demo looked like a beefed-up iteration of Snapchat, complete with the center capture button and adorable face filters, just more of them — many, many more. We also saw the next iteration of what will be available in Facebook’s copycat efforts: 3-D rendering, image recognition and context, and more face filters than anyone could possibly know what to do with.
The simmering battle between the two social media giants goes way back. In 2013, Snap (then Snapchat) rejected a $3 billion acquisition offer from Facebook. In 2014, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel told Forbes that Facebook lightly threatened the company, saying it was coming out with its own version of Snapchat — which turned out to be Poke, a blatant copy of Snapchat … which failed. But if Spiegel thought Facebook would eventually give up trying to replicate its success, he officially learned today that no amount of app strikeouts can deter a company that wants to own and facilitate how the world communicates.
Tuesday, just before Facebook’s show kicked off, Snapchat offered a preemptive strike. The app added World Lenses, which layer 3-D objects over photos and videos you capture — not just your face. And then Facebook leveled them, essentially introducing the same features, but more of them — not to mention a road map for adding to the supply, a way to finesse them with custom features, and a platform that makes it easy for anyone to get involved. In a separate panel later in the day about developing for Camera, Facebook product manager Michael Slater mentioned that Camera allows users to share this content to the News Feed. Slater’s comment felt like a dig at Snapchat’s confusing user interface and directory. Or maybe not. Either way, he’s right: Snapchat is undeniably “cooler,” but everyone knows how to use Facebook. Despite the massive growth of Instagram Stories and Facebook’s efforts to develop Camera AR features, Snapchat remains popular with younger users. That might not matter in the long run, though: Facebook has nearly 2 billion users. Instagram continues to grow. The company owns WhatsApp. It houses the technology and tools responsible for the ways we talk to each other online. Eventually, even an app as wildly successful as Snapchat will lose this numbers game.
That Facebook has managed to replicate Snapchat’s AR-layering functionality isn’t the sucker punch, though — it’s the platform. Snapchat allows anyone to create Geofilters, and it appears that it works with digital artists on Selfie Lenses (though, how exactly that all works — or doesn’t work — is hazy), but this is a fairly limited offering for developers. But Facebook just invited its worldwide network of developers to use a suite of tools (coding and noncoding) to create anything — not just location-specific filters, and not just masks, but filters that change depending on how many people view them, or interact with something that’s happening in real time, like the score of a game. These pieces are still in development (the AR studio is in a closed beta; the Frame studio — which allows you to create frames for videos and photos in Camera — is open now, and it’s incredibly easy to use), but they are vastly more functional than what we’ve seen Snapchat offer outside creators.
Both of these companies are largely unsympathetic characters. But somehow on Tuesday, in its blatant disregard for the app that changed how we think about messaging and mobile community, Facebook managed to make Snapchat look like the indie darling that doesn’t stand a chance against its big-box-office competition. “I used to think glasses were going to be the first augmented-reality lifeforms,” said Zuckerberg, in what felt like adding insult to injury in the form of a swipe at Snapchat Spectacles. Little more than a month ago, Snap called itself “a camera company” in its IPO. Tuesday, Facebook co-opted that label and made it clear that it’s not content with just mimicking Snapchat’s functionality. It will do it one better. It will do it 10 times better. Facebook is going to out-Snapchat Snapchat, without even acknowledging that it exists.