Instagram treads on Snapchat’s ephemeral turf

On Tuesday, Instagram introduced the Stories feature, which bears a striking resemblance to Snapchat Stories.
On Tuesday, Instagram introduced the Stories feature, which bears a striking resemblance to Snapchat Stories. Instagram via The New York Times

MENLO PARK, Calif. — For nearly four years, Snapchat has been Facebook’s white whale.

The popular disappearing message startup rebuffed a $3 billion acquisition offer from Facebook in 2013. Snapchat’s service has since continued to grow rapidly by capturing the hearts — and thumbs — of the young audiences that advertisers love. Facebook has failed in several attempts at cloning Snapchat.

Now Instagram, the photo-sharing app owned by Facebook, is taking its own stab at Snapchat.

On Tuesday, Instagram introduced Instagram Stories, which lets people share photos and videos that have a lifespan of no more than 24 hours with friends who follow them. The service bears a striking resemblance — some might say it is a carbon copy — to Snapchat Stories.


The move could ignite a head-to-head battle between Instagram and Snapchat, which have long lurked in each other’s territories but have not faced off directly. Both are mobile apps that use primarily visual mediums. Both became popular first with young people. And both are now trying to improve their businesses by increasing digital advertising in formats such as Stories.

Kevin Systrom, co-founder and chief executive of Instagram, did not mention Snapchat by name in an interview about Instagram Stories, but he obliquely referred to “competitors” and acknowledged that “other companies deserve all the credit” for popularizing disappearing photos and videos. It has been an area of interest for Instagram for some time, he said.

Instagram Stories aims to lower the bar for sharing all types of photos and video — and not just the carefully planned and painstakingly touched-up photographs that are typical of the service, Systrom said.

“Our mission has always been to capture and share the world’s moments, not just the world’s most beautiful moments,” he said. “Stories will alleviate a ton of the pressure people have to post their absolute best stuff.”


A Snapchat spokeswoman declined to comment on Instagram’s move.

When Instagram began nearly six years ago as a photo-sharing app — the first photo shared on the service was a square, semi-blurry photo of a dog, poorly framed and with little evidence of retouching — it became a place for people to publicly store their pictures and memories. The app quickly gained traction, and, in 2012, Facebook said it would buy Instagram for $1 billion in cash and stock. Today, Instagram has more than 500 million users.

Snapchat — led by Evan Spiegel, who co-founded it while an undergraduate at Stanford University — started in 2011. The private messaging service, with its disappearing photos, was the opposite of the public nature of social media services like Instagram. Young audiences flocked to Snapchat precisely because an unflattering photo sent to a friend would last for mere seconds rather than a lifetime and would not show up for parents or a future employer to find.

As Snapchat has matured in recent years, with more than 150 million users who visit the app on a daily basis, it has become a foe to Facebook and Instagram. Snapchat, based in the Venice Beach neighborhood of Los Angeles, is now valued at around $19 billion and has released a number of advertising products.

Snapchat Stories, a departure from the company’s original direct messaging service, has been a hit for essentially acting as a 24-hour photo and video diary viewable only by those who follow the user.


Beyond that, Snapchat Stories also collects photos and videos users have contributed from a particular event — say the Teen Choice awards — and stitches them together to form a narrative. The result feels more like a television show than a social media post; companies can buy ads that are placed in stories.

The rivalry between Snapchat and Instagram was evident in a recent report from the investment banking firm Jefferies, which predicted Snapchat’s growth could detract from Instagram’s advertising momentum by as soon as the fourth quarter of this year.