Why is Facebook pushing Snapchat-style stories?

Perhaps the most popular social media format in 2019 is “stories.” These are ephemeral video and photo posts that disappear from your profile after a day. The stories post format is incredibly popular with the younger demographic, thanks to Snapchat and Instagram.

But now Instagram’s uncool dad, Facebook, is trying to prompt the rest of us to do stories too.

A “story,” in the lexicon of today’s internet, is basically a slideshow of smartphone video and photos, overlaid with filters and the kind of graphics you used to get in Microsoft Paint.

Instagram Stories is today’s most popular app of this kind, but the format was invented just over five years ago by Snapchat. Nobody but teens use Snapchat, while Instagram Stories appeals mostly to millennials and younger.

For the rest of us, you may have noticed Stories being promoted at the top of your feed in Facebook’s mobile app and at the top of the sidebar on its webpage. For some reason Facebook is very keen to hook its older demographic on multimedia posts that disappear, never to be seen again after 24 hours.

To understand how we got to this point and why “stories” exist (and then not exist a day later), a quick overview of the history of stories is necessary.

Snapchat first introduced it in October 2013 as a feature of its app called “My Story.” At that time, it was simply a way for users to compile their multimedia messages (called “snaps”) into a chronological storyline.

From 2014 on, Snapchat stories became hugely popular with kids – who would message each other meme-heavy stories to waste time, presumably between school classes. Who am I kidding, it was probably used a lot during class too.

In the best traditions of big Internet companies, after a couple of years Facebook’s Instagram brazenly stole the stories idea from Snapchat. Once introduced into Instagram’s photo app in August 2016, stories started to gain much wider appeal. Now it wasn’t just teenagers posting stories – it was millennials and other young people too.

Instagram Stories reportedly now has double the amount of users of Snapchat, so its appropriation of the technology has been a huge success.

Since Instagram Stories has proven to be so popular, Facebook has decided to get its own – typically older – users to try and use the format too.

If you still use Facebook, when you open up the app nowadays you’ll see a horizontal bar labelled “Stories” right at the top of the screen. I tend to ignore it, but occasionally I’ll see one of my friends attempt a multimedia story.

Usually it’s about something old people do, like photos from a celebratory birthday lunch or a video of their daily commute. Said friend may paste a couple of emoji and some text in a cartoon font into the story, to try and get into the spirit. But sadly, I have to report that Facebook stories are not as exciting as the stories on Instagram or Snapchat.

That said, I can see why Facebook is heavily marketing its Stories feature. Facebook is hoping we will use this feature to show snippets of our daily lives. Whether it’s a minute or two video of a holiday scene, or a concert you’re at, or your child doing something cute and adorable, Facebook wants these kinds of activities to become more prominent in your feed.

In his wrapup of a very difficult 2018, Facebook founding CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote that he wants Facebook “to encourage meaningful social interactions rather than passive consumption” going forward.

My guess is that Facebook thinks short snippets of multimedia videos and photos of your daily life – overlaid with cartoon graphics – are “meaningful social interactions.”

Fair enough, but why do these stories have to last only 24 hours and then disappear? Frankly, I don’t think there’s any good reason for Facebook to make its stories ephemeral. Facebook probably chose to do this for one reason only: to try and replicate the success of Instagram Stories, which itself had replicated Snapchat’s success.

It’s ironic though, since Snapchat – the originator of stories – was designed to be the antithesis of Facebook. Its co-founder and CEO Evan Spiegel explained in a 2012 blog post that Snapchat was inspired by “hilarious stories about emergency detagging of Facebook photos before job interviews and photoshopping blemishes out of candid shots before they hit the Internet.”

Spiegel wanted his “disappearing picture messages” app to be an antidote to the selfie-obsessed culture that Facebook and Instagram (which Facebook acquired in April 2012) were largely responsible for.

Although the ephemeral nature of stories is one of the defining aspects of the format, all of Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook offer ways to privately archive your stories. Instagram goes a step further, in allowing you to pin a story to your profile indefinitely, via its “highlights” feature.

I get why Snapchat continues to push the ephemerality of its service, since teenagers don’t want to leave any evidence of what they do most days. But I see little reason why Instagram or Facebook stories should be ephemeral. Indeed part of Facebook’s appeal is the ability to document your social life over time – that’s why its “On This Day” archive feature is so popular.

As for Instagram, I’ve seen stories used by some professional media people and I sometimes wonder if it’s really an optimal format for them. For instance, Washington Post NBA reporter Ben Golliver regularly posts stories on Instagram – even using them to invite listeners to participate in segments of the podcast he co-hosts, Open Floor. His stories are fun and he posts a lot of behind-the-scenes NBA photos. But he hasn’t highlighted any of them, so they disappear after a day. Seems like a waste of good “content.”

But that is probably the point of story posts on apps like Instagram and Snapchat: they’re fun and not meant to be taken seriously (a.k.a. archived for future reference).

However, for Facebook the stories format is an odd fit. I don’t think it’s going to be a success there, perhaps because the stories Facebook users post are a bit too humdrum. Or maybe it’s because Facebook takes itself too seriously as a media platform.