Facebook's trying to keep up with the trend of short-lived shared photos and video with its latest app Slingshot (iOS|Android). Half Snapchat , half Instagram Direct, Slingshot allows you to share photos and videos, called "shots," with your friends that disappear when they swipe them away. It's a simple idea, but there's a catch -- in order to see the photo or video your friend sent to you, you need to send a photo or video back first.
That "send something to see something" feature is meant to set Slingshot apart from Snapchat and other so-called ephemeral messaging apps, but I also think it's the app's biggest flaw. It makes using Slingshot feel unnatural and frustrating.
Slingshot is Facebook's second attempt to jump onboard the Snapchat craze. The first was Poke, an almost exact Snapchat clone that never really picked up steam and shut down in May 2014, just one month before Slingshot's debut. This time around, Facebook is betting on its unique approach to get people more engaged with the app.
Slingshot uses your phone number to create an account, and once you enter it, the app sends a text with a confirmation code that logs you into the app. Once you're in, you can connect your Facebook account to see who else is using Slingshot. Your existing Facebook friends who are using the app are automatically added to your list of Slingshot contacts, which creates a built-in group of friends. You can also invite people in your phone's contacts to use the app by sending them a text.
Now that you have a group of friends in Slingshot, you can start snapping photos and recording videos to send to them. To make that easy, you're taken straight to the full-screen camera mode when you open the app. At the bottom of that screen, there are three controls: "Flash" toggles the camera flash on and off, "Shoot" is the shutter button, and "Selfie" switches between your front and back cameras. You tap Shoot once to take a photo, or press and hold it to record video. When you capture a video, there's a bar that appears at the top of the screen showing you how many seconds of recording you have remaining.
Once you're satisfied with your photo, you can add a text overlay or draw on it, just like you can in Snapchat. You can't, however, add text or draw on videos. After you're done shooting and jazzing up your photos, tap "Use" to share it. Then you'll see your list of Slingshot friends contact list screen of the app, where you can see all of the people you're connected with on Slingshot.
Here you can pick and choose friends to send your shot to, but you also have the option to send it to everyone at once. Facebook is betting on this widespread sharing feature, which is not available in Snapchat, to make Slingshot unique. In Facebook's thinking, this group-sharing option makes Slingshot more like a news feed, where you broadcast your life to everyone, and less like a one-on-one messaging app.
Slingshot's signature feature is that when you get a shot from someone, you need to send a photo or video back to view it. From the main camera screen, you can swipe down on the screen to see if you have any locked or unlocked shots, grouped by friend. Locked shots are those that were sent to you, but that you can't see until you send something back to that friend, while unlocked shots are photos and video you can view immediately. You'll notice that locked shots look like small pixelated thumbnails, which is Facebook's way of disguising the actual image while still giving you a blurry preview. It's a unique approach that forces you to interact with the app and your friends, but it feels frustrating.
I'll be up front that I use Snapchat fairly regularly and prefer that experience, so I might be a bit biased. With Snapchat, when a friend sends me a photo or video, I can look at it immediately, and then choose to react with a text message, photo, or video. It feels natural, and there's no pressure to respond if I don't want to.
With Slingshot, I am forced to respond to a message that I can't even see. Because of that, in my testing I found myself and my friends sending photos of empty backgrounds, walls, and other meaningless subjects just so that we could see each other's photos. Though according to their blog, the team behind Slingshot hopes that people will feel compelled to share a moment from their day when they get a shot, in my early testing, it seems that people are often eager to see what you sent, so they'll just find anything they can capture and send back to complete the transaction.
Slingshot tries to combat this phenomenon with the reaction feature. You can tap on a shot that someone sends you to bring up your camera to shoot a selfie or video, or send a text response. However, that reaction shot doesn't count towards unlocking your friend's shots. That means when you get a new shot, you'll still need to send a shot back, then view your friend's shot, then react. The whole process feels cumbersome and tedious.
It's worth noting that if you have locked shots from several friends, you can create just one shot and send it back to all of them to view everything they sent you.
Unlike Snapchat, where messages disappear after a set number of seconds, you can view a Slingshot message for as long as you want, so long as you don't close the app. I really appreciate that feature. Also, if you take a screenshot of a shot, the app won't notify your friend like Snapchat does. That tells me that Facebook doesn't necessarily intend for you to use Slingshot to share private, intimate shots, but instead use it to share moments from your day.
Slingshot has a few extra features that set it apart from Snapchat, most notably the sounds. When you send and receive a new shot, the app makes a few fun and dramatic noises. It also plays music when you draw on any photo you take. It adds a bit of whimsy to the app, but if you don't like it, you can turn if off in settings.
If you want to save all of the photos you capture with Slingshot, there's an option to do that in the settings menu. None of the shots your friends send you are saved, only the photos you take.
Facebook's latest app Slingshot helps you connect with friends using fleeting photos and video, but experience is downright awkward. When we get notifications on our smartphones, whether it's an email, text message, or update from Facebook, we've been conditioned to view and respond to them quickly. Slingshot forces you to change that behavior because you cannot view what's been sent to you, and yet you're still expected to respond. It feels unnatural to interact with Slingshot, and for that reason, I wouldn't be surprised if the app suffered the same fate as Poke.
Ephemeral messaging is a huge hit with younger generations, but looking at the entire population of smartphone users, it's not all that popular. While Facebook is banking on its billions of users to help Slingshot grow, the fact is that at last count, only 9 percent of adults 18 and older with a smartphone said they used Snapchat. Given that, I just don't think that the average Facebook user will even bother with this app, nor should they.
If you're in that small but still-growing camp of people who enjoy sending short-lived photos and videos to your friends, skip Slingshot and pick Snapchat for its uncomplicated design and ample features instead.