The Puzzling Ineptitude of Facebook Stories

For years, users requested ephemeral capabilities. When the feature arrived, it wasn’t what they had hoped for.

It’s lonely at the top

Two years ago, Facebook added a new feature which they called “On This Day.” It was a response to the popularity of an app called Timehop, which would dig up a user’s activity from the same day on any given year. Facebook is notorious for adding features that directly compete with third-party apps plugged into their API. The “On This Day” feature did, in fact, relegate Timehop to the nether regions of the app store, but it had another, unintended effect. Now that everyone was forced to revisit their own ghosts of Facebook past on a daily basis, all were mortified by the things we thought worthy of posting in those primordial days before Facebook had garnered its first billion users. At the same time, Snapchat was beginning its meteoric rise as the new kid on the social media block, and had seen an explosion of success with its new Stories feature. A preponderance of users began to ask: What if we could make ephemeral posts on Facebook?

It seemed antithetical at the time to everything Facebook stood for. After all, Facebook was supposed to be a permanent repository of a collected and curated “you.” The company did not yet see Snapchat as a direct threat.

Fast forward a couple years. Snapchat (Snap, Inc. as of a recent restructuring) has launched a public IPO, dipped a toe in the hardware market with Spectacles, and Stories is by far its most ubiquitous feature. It has also — and this is critical — captured the elusive and fickle millennial market. If you can walk across a college campus without passing one person who is checking or posting to Snapchat, you should invest heavily in lottery tickets. Snap’s IPO is shaky as of this writing, but its impact on the ways in which we view social media is undeniable.

Facebook, jealous of Snapchat’s success, especially after the company turned down multibillion dollar acquisition offers from the blue giant, employed a new tactic: if you can’t acquire them, copy them.

Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger all became burdened with some form of the “stories” format. Of the three, Instagram’s implementation saw the most success. Recently, the company announced that Instagram Stories have grown to some 200M daily users. With those kind of numbers, Facebook must have figured it was time to expand the formula to their core product, especially since a good chunk of users would appreciate the addition of ephemeral media.

Herein lies the mistake.

Since Facebook Stories launched in late March, not a single one of my multiple thousands of friends have posted to it. It sits dormant atop my mobile News Feed, just another distraction to scroll past on my way to content I actually care about.

The issue with Facebook Stories is not a conceptual one. Many users, myself included, would welcome a convenient way to make ephemeral posts. But in continuing to stick closely to the version and interface of Stories as envisioned by Snapchat, Facebook has only succeeded in cluttering their service.

We already have far too many options when it comes to sharing things on Facebook. You can post a text status, link, photo, video, location, live video, or even a “feeling.” All of this works perfectly well because it all shows up in the same algorithmically intuitive feed, and all of it is posted from the same white box on the homepage.

Facebook Stories, by contrast, feel like a shoddy addition to a house that’s someone’s dad attempted in their spare time — a shed nailed onto the kitchen with a bunch of 2x4s. I don’t want to check two feeds every time I open Facebook, and I certainly don’t want one of those feeds to show up exclusively on mobile.

The only thing Facebook had to do to crush Snapchat is put a timer setting in that ubiquitous white box we’ve all been posting from forever, an integration of ephemerality into Facebook’s core product, the News Feed.

Apparently that would have been too intuitive and unobtrusive.

Update: Facebook has announced that Stories will soon be coming to the desktop. That sounds like good news for the dozen people who use it.

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