Facebook is trying once again to catch Snapchat's wave.
The social-networking behemoth is launching on Tuesday a new app called Slingshot that allows people to share short-lived photos and videos with one another. This concept, which caught fire through competitors like Snapchat, encourages people to share less carefully edited photos and videos by promising they'll be deleted shortly after they've been seen.
One twist, though, is that unlike most other apps, Slingshot requires users to share something before they can view any images from others. That twist -- along with a focus on sending to groups, rather than to individuals -- is what Facebook hopes will broaden Slingshot's appeal.
"We're not a messaging app," said Joey Flynn, a product designer on the Slingshot project. Flynn said the dynamic of requiring users to share something each time they want to see everything their friends have sent since they last used the app has the potential to encourage people to upload more often and to be more creative about what they share.
Slingshot's release marks the second time Facebook has attempted to encroach on the turf of other so-called ephemeral apps.
Facebook tried to make waves in messaging back in 2012 when it released an app called Poke, which played off an early messaging feature in Facebook. The Poke app more directly emulated Snapchat's service by offering users the chance to have the image self-destruct after 1, 3, 5, or 10 seconds. Facebook quietly removed the Poke app last month.
While Poke stalled, Snapchat grabbed the attention of teens and adults, rapidly increasing its valuation and making it an attractive acquisition target. In November, Facebook allegedly offered $3 billion to buy the company.
Slingshot follows a different path than Poke, though. Photos and videos still self-destruct after they're viewed, but recipients can look at a photo, or watch a video on loop, for as long as they wish before flicking it away with their finger.
When a user first opens up the app on their smartphone running Google's Android or Apple's iOS operating system, they're presented with a simple camera app. The settings include the ability to turn the flash on and off, a "selfie" feature which turns on the front-facing camera, and a list at the top saying how many images from other Slingshot users are waiting for them. Users can take a video or a photo. After a photo is taken, for example, there are options to add text, icons or even drawings to emphasize a point or reach for the height of silliness.
Once done, users choose which of their friends they'd like to send the image to -- all, a group, or a single person. After they've uploaded their creations, they can see a feed of their friends' shots. If a user feels inclined to reply to an image they can do so. The reply is sent directly to the friend and doesn't require the user to share something new first.
"We wanted to create an environment where it's comfortable to share in," Flynn said.
None of the service is tied directly to Facebook other than the ability to connect with friends from the social network on Slingshot's service -- an unusual move by the company. Facebook said the list of friends is primarily built from phone numbers, culled from a smartphone's address book.
Slingshot was initially built during a hackathon in December by Flynn and Rocky Smith, now a lead engineer on the project. The team has since grown to about 10 employees.
Unlike any other app Facebook has built, Slingshot isn't being marketed with the company's branding, another unusual twist.
Facebook is also managing expectations, saying it doesn't expect all that a billion of its users to immediately jump on board. The company instead said it expects the app to grow slowly and plans to tweak as it along the way. Facebook doesn't even have plans to promote the app on its website.
"We're not going to fly a flag about it," Flynn said. "We want it to start with a small group."
Slingshot follows Facebook's recent strategy of building a universe of apps that tie back -- even tangentially -- to its core network and services in an effort to improve its presence in mobile. The company has built up Instagram, a picture-sharing company it bought in 2012. Facebook has also steadily increased the features of its Messenger app, and released a new program for reading through a feed called Paper.
These different apps appear to be more successful than the company's Facebook Home initiative, which attempted to take over a smartphone's home screen with an app that could display images from a user's friends and offer an easy way to send messages back and forth.
Now, the company is pushing even harder with its strategy of multiple apps with Slingshot.
Not to be outdone, Snapchat announced new features for its own app Tuesday, allowing groups of users in the same location to collect their photos and videos and share them as part of the larger event. "We wanted to build something that offered a community perspective - lots of different points of view," Snapchat said in a statement.
Update 11:20am PT: Added competing announcement from Snapchat.