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Why Facebook’s earliest efforts to kill off Snapchat completely backfired

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is the reason Snapchat is one of Facebook's greatest threats, former TechCrunch writer Billy Gallagher argues in "How to Turn Down a Billion Dollars: The Snapchat Story."
  • Poke, Facebook's clone of Snapchat, may have saved Spiegel's ephemeral messaging app.
  • "It really showed at the time that Facebook didn't really understand the appeal of Snap and why this demographic was using it," Gallagher told Recode.
Snapchat co-founders Bobby Murphy (l) and Evan Spiegel (c) ring the opening bell on March 2, 2017, as NYSE President Thomas Farley looks on.
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Snapchat co-founders Bobby Murphy (l) and Evan Spiegel (c) ring the opening bell on March 2, 2017, as NYSE President Thomas Farley looks on.

Snapchat is one of Facebook's greatest threats, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg may be partly to blame.

That's one interesting theory presented in a new book about Snapchat — "How to Turn Down a Billion Dollars: The Snapchat Story" — that came out this week from former TechCrunch writer Billy Gallagher. He was also a few years behind Snap CEO Evan Spiegel at the same Stanford University fraternity.

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Rewind to late 2012. Snapchat, which was little more than a year old, was struggling to shake a reputation that it was only popular for sending inappropriate photos. Zuckerberg met with Spiegel and expressed interest in buying Snapchat; but when Spiegel declined, Zuckerberg launched a clone of Snapchat, called Poke.

And while it was intended to kill Snapchat for good, according to Gallagher, it may have saved it.

Here's how Gallagher presented it in his book:

Despite users sharing over a billion images through the service, Snapchat struggled to be taken seriously. Many people, particularly those over twenty-five, still thought of it as a sexting app or a toy.

An internet revolution was going on, but all anyone wanted to talk about was sexting. By having the dominant, respected social network take impermanent photo sharing seriously, Poke helped change the narrative, and Snapchat benefited enormously. The logic changed from "The photos disappear — Snapchat must be for sexting" to "Facebook made a disappearing photos app — disappearing photos must be the next big thing!"

Evan would later call Poke "the greatest Christmas present we ever had."

Gallagher thinks Facebook's failure not only helped Snap's ability to recruit and improved the company's reputation with the media, it also revealed that Facebook was out of touch about why Snapchat was so popular to begin with.

"It really showed at the time that Facebook didn't really understand the appeal of Snap and why this demographic was using it," Gallagher said in an interview with Recode. "It took a while for Facebook to sort of be humbled, understand Snapchat, and then finally have a successful copy with Instagram Stories."

The Instagram Stories clone, which didn't come until mid-2016, was much better — and is also a hit. It has more than 300 million daily users, well over 100 million more users than Snapchat has for its entire app.

Snap is now worth almost $25 billion, and it's certainly possible Snapchat and Spiegel would have ended up in the same place whether Zuckerberg tried to kill it or not.

But it also reminds me of a quote attributed to 17th century French poet Jean de La Fontaine: "A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it."