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WhatsApp’s new feature continues Facebook’s Snapchat mimicry

Facebook’s WhatsApp is a mobile messaging application used by 1.2 billion people.AP file/2014

SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook offered $3 billion to buy the ephemeral messaging app Snapchat in 2013. Snapchat’s founder, Evan Spiegel, turned down the offer.

Ever since, Facebook and some of its top apps — including Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger — have been trying to tap into the explosively popular photo-sharing features pioneered by Snapchat.

The latest sign of that came Monday as WhatsApp, a mobile messaging application used by 1.2 billion people, unveiled a version of its Status feature that takes a significant number of cues from Snapchat. Similar to Snapchat’s Stories feature, WhatsApp’s Status now lets people share images, GIFs, and videos as a status update, all of which last for 24 hours before disappearing.

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The move follows a string of actions by Facebook to emulate Snapchat. In August, Instagram introduced a Stories feature that was a near exact copy of Snapchat’s. In December, Messenger revamped its look and feel to emphasize sending photos, just like Snapchat. As Snapchat’s parent company, Snap, has positioned itself as a camera company, Facebook has experimented with making a camera feature the first thing people see when opening up the social network’s main app.

Even if imitation is the highest compliment, WhatsApp executives are not admitting it.

“We build things because we really hope people will want to use them even more,” Randall Sarafa, a product manager at WhatsApp, said in an interview about the new version of Status. Avoiding any direct mention of Snapchat, he added, “We don’t really think about building things for other reasons.”

A WhatsApp spokeswoman declined to comment further.

A Snapchat spokeswoman declined to comment on the similarities with Whats-App, and a press officer for Instagram declined to comment beyond past public statements. But the Facebook Messenger spokeswoman Jennifer Hakes said: “In some ways, the camera is now replacing the keyboard. As more people use Messenger in their everyday lives, we wanted to make it faster, simpler, and more fun to send photos and videos — so we built the new Messenger camera.”

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Facebook’s moves are unfolding at a critical moment for Snap. The company is set to go public next month in what is likely to be one of the biggest technology public offerings since those of the social media service Twitter in 2013 and the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba in 2014. Investors have been grousing about how unprofitable Snap is and how its number of users appears to be small. On Sunday, Sriram Krishnan, a top Snapchat product manager, said on Twitter that he was leaving the company.

Facebook’s emulation of Snapchat has a broader significance in that the network and its apps are moving toward a more visual and interactive form of communication.

How much coordination there is within Facebook and among WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger over how to grapple with Snapchat is unclear. While executives at the company regularly meet with Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, to check in and give updates on long-term product strategy, they have said in past interviews that they maintain a level of workplace autonomy.

“We operate in a largely independent way from Facebook,” Sarafa, of WhatsApp, said in a recent interview.

Still, many of the product executives at these companies acknowledge that some of their updates are not entirely original and give credit to Snapchat for creating a new kind of “format.”

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In an interview in August, Kevin Systrom, a founder and the chief executive of Instagram, did not mention Snapchat by name but acknowledged that “other companies deserve all the credit” for popularizing disappearing photos and videos.

“This format unlocks a new version of creativity for us,” Systrom said. “I think Instagram will be judged by where we go from here and what we make of it in the future.”

Instagram’s Stories product — the Snapchat look-alike — has since become a hit: More than 150 million people use it daily. In its initial public offering filing, Snap cited the direction of Instagram as a potential risk factor to its own growth.

At WhatsApp, the Status feature was originally conceived as a text-based away message, similar to the one in AOL’s Instant Messenger product of the 1990s, which made it easy to let friends know if you were around to text or if you were too busy.

The updated Status feature replaces that text with richer multimedia. Now, as with Snapchat’s Stories, WhatsApp users can post photos, videos, and GIFs as their status, which lasts for 24 hours before disappearing. WhatsApp users can also send their status updates as messages to individual or multiple friends at once, much the way Snapchat’s messaging system is structured.

WhatsApp recognizes that its latest feature may not be completely original. But it still hopes it will bring the app similar success.

“Obviously we’re all seeing broad adoption of this format across the industry right now,” Sarafa said. “Our hope is that with this update, people will find new ways to share and consume media on WhatsApp, too.”

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