Slingshot is the second mobile app to come out of Facebook’s new startup-like department, Creative Labs. Like photo messaging tools TapTalk and Snapchat, Slingshot lets users send images back and forth along with drawings or text.
Unlike those products, Slingshot’s creators don’t think of it as a messaging service. Instead, they feel it’s a visual, micro-news feed with select friends that will make everyone — even people who are normally content to consumer rather than create content — participate.
Its key innovation is Slingshot’s reply-to-unlock feature, which forces users to share an image of what they’re doing before they can view a photo they have received.
Is Slingshot just another Snapchat copycat? Is the reply-to-unlock feature something users will love, or is it a handy way for Facebook to boost engagement metrics? And is Facebook still innovating, or is it playing defence and cloning today’s leading startups?
We spoke with Slingshot’s lead designer, Joey Flynn. Flynn came up with Slingshot in December during a 3-day hackathon and brought it to life with a team of ten people. Here’s a lightly edited Q&A with him about Facebook’s latest product.
Business Insider:Slingshot is one of Facebook’s Creative Labs projects. What is Creative Labs and how did the team come together to build this app?
Joey Flynn: Slingshot is the second Creative Labs project. Creative Labs isn’t some separate entity that operates inside of Facebook. It’s really more of an umbrella, under which projects can get started and grow.
The team working on Slingshot is ten people. When we started in December, there were only two of us. By the end of January we had a whole team working on it full time. [Compiling] the team was a very organic process.
BI: Who’s on the Slingshot team and what have they worked on before?
JF: The product manager was working on things like Home with me, as well as on the News Feed redesign. The first engineer who built the prototype worked on photos for our Android app. Two of the other Android team members also worked on Home with me. Two of the iOS engineers are in the London office. One is working out of Japan who was an engineer from Paper.
BI: What happened last week with the early release in the App Store?
JF: That was an accident.
BI: Just an accident? Anything else to add?
JF: It was an accident.
BI: Where’d you get the idea for Slingshot?
JF: In December we had a 3-day hackathon for the Creative Labs kickoff. I have brothers who are not very tech savvy. They only really use iMessage and they don’t live in San Francisco. I would send them photos of stuff I was up to and I’d notice that what I sent them had been “seen,” but they had no incentive to share back.
This idea of [one-sided] sharing is what we know today. It’s, “Here’s what I’m doing, everyone look at it.” It’s me broadcasting myself. With Slingshot, we really want to add duality to sharing. In sharing, you want to let your friends know what you’re up to, and you want to see what they’re up to. That makes you feel more connected to people around you.
Instead of me just showing you a hike I’m on or dinner party I’m having, I’m doing that because I want to express myself and I want to hear from you. We think that’s a special part of Slingshot.
On other platforms, I felt like I was just publishing things for my brothers to consume. There should be a place where everyone feels comfortable sharing.
BI: Was the reply-to-open concept built into the original version of Slingshot? How’d Facebook come up with that?
JF: That feature was built during the hackathon. When we were testing Slingshot, people started downloading and using it over the winter holiday. The feature created this awesome community where everyone felt comfortable sharing moments and everyone was sending great videos back and forth.
BI: Was Facebook thinking that the reply-to-unlock feature could also be good for growth and engagement metrics? It forces a two-for-one interaction out of users.
JF: No, we were just thinking mainly about unlocking a new type of sharing. I think sending 2 to unlock 1 is a misconception. We don’t look at this as a messaging product. Slingshot is not about, “Oh, I want to see your message. Let me send a throwaway shot.” It’s about you publishing your own story and then being able to see the feeds of your friends’ lives. We don’t think of this as a messaging product. It doesn’t even work that way.
We don’t think of this as a messaging product. It doesn’t even work that way.
That wasn’t a consideration, about the metrics. Our goal here is to create value for people.
BI: If people aren’t sending throwaway shots, then are you seeing lag time between photos sent back and forth? Are people waiting until they actually have something to show before sending photos or videos?
JF: That’s something we definitely see. That’s a great way to use it. It’s not about when I get a shot I drop everything and take a photo or video. It’s about saying, “Hey, I’m up to something” when you’re actually up to something, not responding immediately.
Sometimes it is a quick response and that’s fine. Sometimes it’s 5 or 10 minutes. Sometimes it’s 12 hours. I think that’s totally fine.
BI:You recently quoted venture capitalist Fred Wilson who said, “The cardinal rule of social networks is that one per cent of people create content and 90 per cent of people consume it.” But Facebook wants to “flip that on its head” with Slingshot. Can consumer behaviour can really be changed?
JF: Networks that go by Fred’s rule of thumb are successful. But for Slingshot, we wanted to create an environment that makes it comfortable for everyone to share. We felt like that kind of place didn’t exist yet, so that 100% of the people feel comfortable sharing.
We believe self expression and creativity are inherently important to everyone. But thinking the default is consumption — it’s easy to fall into that trap. The default should be production and consumption and creativity. On Slingshot, everyone has the ability to tell their stories and share small things or big things, fun moments or sad moments and know the people they’re sharing with. They have curated those people. We see it as something very liberating.
BI: How do you feel about people saying Slingshot is a Snapchat or TapTalk clone?
JF:It’s funny to read all the speculation around it.
It’s funny to read all the speculation [around Slingshot and Snapchat]…The comparison struck us as really strange.
It becomes really apparent when you’re using Slingshot how different it actually is [from those apps]. Like we were saying internally, we don’t think of it as a messaging app. Messaging is a really interesting space, but this is not a messaging product. So the comparison struck us as really strange.
BI: One thing people have been saying about Facebook is that it’s playing a lot of defence. It either buys competitors, like WhatsApp, or it clones them, like Poke and Snapchat. Is that sentiment true? Is Facebook following, rather than innovating?
JF: The great thing about Creative Labs is we have this opportunity to explore new types of products. We think that’s exactly what we did with Slingshot. I think it’s really clear that it’s unlike anything else. The way production and consumption works, it’s totally different.
I think it’s really easy before you use it to say it’s like a competitor. Building completely new types of networks is what we’re so excited about as a team.
BI: So the idea that Facebook is copying or following others rather than innovating with its apps, you’d say, is wrong?
JF: It’s definitely wrong. I’m extremely excited about the opportunity we have with Labs.
BI: But a lot of photo apps already exist.
JF: I think a “photo” app is — for lack of a better word — a pretty shallow way to look at a product.
A ‘photo’ app is — for lack of a better word — a pretty shallow way to look at a product.
It comes down to the mechanics and the kind of behaviour it unlocks. Ours is less about photos and videos and instead it’s about this connectivity you have and what comes from the dynamics in place.
BI: What products are you excited about right now, outside of Facebook?
JF: There’s a bunch but they change so frequently so it’s hard to even name a few. There are a ton of products I use all the time. I try to use everything.
BI: Any specific ones?
JF: Nah, they change too frequently.
BI: Have you seen the news about a new app, Yo, that raised $US1 million?
JF: Hilariously enough, I found that a few weeks ago on a [new website] Product Hunt.
BI: What happens within Creative Labs now that Slingshot is out the door? Does everyone keep working on this, or are there other apps in the works?
JF: Everyone is super amped about Slingshot and our team is super dedicated to seeing it through. We have a million ideas. We’re heads down building all the other things that will make it a better and better product. We’re also monitoring very closely what people are saying about it. We want to make sure it’s something people really love. We want to make sure we’re building what we want to build as well as taking all the feedback we get really seriously.
Beyond Slingshot, there are a handful of other teams working under the Creative Labs umbrella.
We’re in Slingshot for the long haul. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Our goal here was to start really small and just see what we could do to get it growing organically by producing a product people love. We hope it just grows through people loving it.
BI: You said you built Slingshot with your anti-messaging brothers in mind. Has Slingshot changed their behaviour?
JF: They’re slinging like crazy.