By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)
Oh, we're in it now.
The past few weeks have seen a series of moves and counter-moves in what has become the hottest visible war in Silicon Valley: image messaging.
The first shot across the bow were reports that Facebook was willing to throw down three billion dollars for the upstart Snapchat. The offer was rebuffed by Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel, leading many to wonder just what the hell the Snapchat founder was thinking. (More on that in a moment.)
Snapchat, for those of you who are over the age of 25 is a service that let's users send pictures and videos that quickly expire after being viewed. Think "Mission Impossible" but with more sexting.
A lot more sexting.
The transitory nature of Snapchat is the defining feature of the service. The images not only disappear, they are engineered so that they cannot be saved. That's why so many people use it for flirting: it's an "of the moment" thing. Not that this doesn't stop people--the kind of scum of the earth who grow up to run revenge porn sites--from circumvent the app's limitations.
Facebook almost certainly sees the company as an existential threat, given the number of young people who have flocked to Snapchat, and sought to acquire them the same way that they picked up last year's image-based threat: Instagram.
Today the Facebook-owned Instagram added in a feature that bumps up against Snapchat's turf: direct messages.
Rumored for a few weeks, as if it were some kind of active reaction to Snapchat's rejection of Facebook's offer. The new direct message feature doesn't match-up exactly with what Snapchat offers. In fact, from a photography standpoint it's even better. Snapchat picture quality is dubious at best, and Instagram DM's are fully functioning Instagram pictures.
Unlike Snapchat you can revisit the images you sent as well as the one's that your friends send you. Up to 15 people can receive the same image, and this creates a private thread where the group can comment on the picture. Everyone who gets the pic can see who else gets the image.
This is a far cry from Snapchat, and as some note it is more in line with the promise of another social media upstart: Path. That service focuses on creating small sharing groups. Path, however, has struggled with a series of public relations set-backs thanks to overly aggressive marketing. Some folks swear by it, but enough users have had their trust burned by Path to bring its long-term prospects into doubt.
What Instagram released today is not a Snapchat replacement. The permanent, if semi-private, nature of the photos precludes some of the racier activities Snapchat users pursue. That doesn't mean that it won't have an effect on the growth of Snapchat.
Swing through the profiles of younger Instagram users and you'll find that many of them feature their Snapchat and Kik (another messaging service) profiles. In essence Instagram is the public field and Snapchat serves as a temporary autonomous zone. A step between meeting online and exchanging more intimate details like phone numbers, emails, or Facebook information.
Instagram's DMs intrude on that part of Snapchat's turf. Flirting could kick off in private, and then jump to text messages, bypassing Snapchat altogether.
Facebook isn't the only social media giant looking to get a piece of the picture pie this week. Rival Twitter, itself riding a hot streak of good buzz coming out of their Initial Public Offering, updated their infrastructure this week to allow for picture sharing in Direct Messages.
These are one-to-one affairs between pairs of users who mutually follow each other. Like the Instagram pictures, the images will remain in the private thread and can be easily extracted by the receiver. The Twitter update has the aura of being something that should have been there from the beginning.
Snapchat retains its killer function of being a fully "of the moment" experience. There's something fully impulsive about the use of Snapchat, and the fact that messages "self-destruct" creates its own kind of safety. A nude picture, an off-color joke, a badly angled selfie: all of these can having a damning effect on a Facebook or Twitter profile.
Hell, just look at the reaction that came about when a pool photographer caught President Obama taking a selfie with the Prime Minsters of Denmark and England at Nelson Mandela's funeral service.
By creating space for people to experiment with their identities, even for a few moments, Snapchat taps into the original power of the internet. The youthful buzz of a fluid identity that drew so many early adopters online in the first place. This is something that entities like Facebook have moved away from in their desire to create a large audience for corporate sponsors.
There's still money to be made by providing people with a means of connecting that doesn't require buckling on their public personas. This, I believe, is why investors are lining up at Snapchat's door. The company has given folks a way to create those moments, now all that's left is to cash in.
Which is where everything will go wrong, undoubtedly.
Public media's TurnstyleNews.com, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.