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posted: 12/29/2012 7:00 AM

Facebook's pokey chat app

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PALO ALTO, Calif. -- It's pretty brassy to call your sexting app Poke. That was my first reaction to the news last week that Facebook had launched a clone of Snapchat, the trendy smartphone app that lets you send photos and videos that self-destruct after a few seconds. Like most people born before the 1990s, I'm not a Snapchat user, and I've long assumed the worst about the app -- that combining cameras; young people; and secret, self-destructing messages could only mean trouble.

Yet TechCrunch's Jordan Crook persuasively argues that Snapchat has gotten a bad rap. Rather than sexting, teen-agers are more likely using the app to safely explore the sort of silly, unguarded and sometimes unwise ideas that have always occupied the teen-age brain. Give teens credit for wanting to communicate with their friends in a manner that won't haunt them forever. In other words, they're chatting with Snapchat precisely because it's not like chatting with Facebook.

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If you think about Snapchat this way -- as an app that young people are using for much more than sexting -- Facebook's interest in it becomes obvious. Indeed, Snapchat should scare the bejeezus out of Facebook. Here's a company that's winning millions of young adherents to a mode of online communication that is utterly alien from Facebook's public, permanent interactions. Mark Zuckerberg can't afford to let that happen. To realize its hundred-billion-dollar dreams, Facebook needs to forever dominate all of the world's social interactions. Wherever two or more people are communicating -- whether it's by text, video, pictures or through games or gifts -- Facebook needs to be a part of their conversation. It needs to be especially vigilant against usurpers of young people, the vanguard that decides who'll rule tomorrow's Internet.

Hence, Facebook had to make Poke. Facebook created the app in just 12 days, reportedly after Snapchat turned down Facebook's attempts to acquire the firm. Poke is ridiculously similar to Snapchat, a feature-for-feature copy that would make Xerox blush. Imitation isn't unusual for Facebook; it constantly "roams the tech universe in search of interesting technology, then mercilessly assimilates all the best stuff into its ever-larger catalog of features." Over the last couple years it has copied the defining ideas behind Foursquare, Twitter, Google+, Groupon, GroupMe, Instagram, Quora -- and now Snapchat.

You might fault Facebook for cloning other companies' ideas, but I don't think mimicry is so bad. All tech firms, from Apple to Microsoft to Google, get ahead through a mix of innovation and imitation. The problem with Poke isn't that Facebook had to copy Snapchat. The real problem -- and it's a big one -- is that Facebook didn't think of building something like Snapchat long ago, all by itself.

After all, the idea of conversations that leave no trace isn't something Snapchat invented. It's an age-old form of interaction, the stuff of spy novels and soap operas and classroom notes meant to be eaten after reading. The fact that it took someone else to invent an app for this kind of innately appealing chatter suggests that Facebook isn't thinking expansively enough about its main product: people. Facebook's success depends on its ability to predict how you, me, and everyone we know are going to want to behave online in the future. If it missed the inherent utility of something as simple as Snapchat, what other shifts in online behavior will Facebook never see coming?

Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology reporter and the author of "True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society."

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