Facebook Messenger just beat Snapchat at its own game [Update]

Update: Facebook announced that its big Messenger update has rolled out globally today and, right on time, we're seeing version 108 in the App Store.

Your Facebook Messenger conversations are about to undergo a big visual upgrade and it even has new features that aren’t available on Snapchat just yet.

“Messenger is becoming more real-time and more visual,” explained Stan Chudnovsky, head of product for Facebook Messenger, who noted that emoji and the in-app camera are outpacing overall text message growth. “We looked at that and figured, ‘Why don’t we go all the way?’”

Meet the latest Messenger update, which begins rolling out to smartphones today. It’s mostly been in the hands of employees and influencers designing stickers, but TechRadar was able to spend an afternoon playing around with the new app at Facebook’s Los Angeles office.

There’s a prominent camera button right inside the otherwise familiar iOS and Android chat app, making it easy to snap a photo or record a video. You can then add the sort of stickers, emoji, text, drawings and special effects that Snapchat has popularized. It’s almost all here.

One way Messenger beats Snapchat

Here is what’s really different: Facebook Messenger allows you to reverse the order of operations. Start with a “blank” canvas by throwing the same art into the camera viewfinder, then snap your photo when every sticker is lined up just how you like it.

You can perfectly position yourself behind all of that visual flair in a way that’s more efficient and fun than it is on Snapchat right now. Sure, Snap debuted four new features for its app this week, but it doesn’t have this one – and it’s important.

I posed in front of this classically drawn white coffee mug sticker, for example, having already placed it where I wanted it in the camera first. It was much easier to then arrange myself around the perfectly placed mug, and it allowed me to focus on making a stupid face. This is a better way of telling my friends “I’m working today and require coffee this very minute.”

Then I set up another photo by effortlessly ducking my head underneath a bunch of light rays (no, not stink lines, thanks), telling friends I was at Facebook LA today. The Messenger team intended to make these visual messages expressive and fast, and this does just that.

Brings AOL Instant Messenger ‘Away Messages’ into 2017

Remember AOL Instant Messenger’s away messages? Facebook is bringing that idea back with today’s update thanks to its own unique take on expiring visual messages.

“That was how I’d look at my buddy list,” said Peter Martinazzi, Director of Product Management for Facebook Messenger, recalling way too many sad and lyric-filled AIM away messages. “I’d see what my friends were up to at the time, and then I would message them based on that. This was a really big part of the chat experience.”

Today’s Messenger update is finally bringing a chat status that’s separate from your Facebook status – said to be a long-awaited feature for users – and it too is undergoing a visual retooling. It’s called ‘Your Story’ and it answers that same ‘what are you up to?’ question by allowing you to string together your visually enhanced messages for your friends to see.‘

Your Stories’ expire after 24 hours, just like Snapchat and Instagram’s similar ‘Stories,’ but this one is meant to be seen by your friends. That’s why the AIM away message analogy actually works. In fact, Messenger’s version of Stories appear at the top of the main chat menu, but it’s mainly populated with people you interact with – not every single friend. Even if you reach Facebook’s 5,000 friends limit, the most people that will see ever your stories is 500.

Update: The status message portion of Messenger of the update won't launch everywhere right away, but Facebook said it's rolling out over time.

Facebook’s two big advantages

“It’s less about the volume of people, and more about the right people – the ones you’re already talking to and those conversations get better,” noted Martinazzi, explaining how Messenger’s Stories are different from those seen on Snapchat.

Facebook knows who your friends are more than any other service. ‘Your Stories’ is sorted by the friends you interact with on Messenger and, to a smaller extent, Facebook. That’s currently a huge advantage for the service over something like Snapchat.

There’s also the fact that Messenger is a more straightforward chat app with a familiar user interface (UI). In addition to being used by one billion people a month, Messenger is now seeing hundreds of millions of users everyday, according to the Facebook team.

Messenger is in more hands and the app design is easier to use for non-millennials. That means it has a better chance of taking snaps mainstream. If I ever intend to pry my parents off of SMS and iMessages, I can introduced them to Messenger. I can’t imagine teaching them Snapchat.

For those missing the point: the birthday card analogy

Not everyone knows why they would want to create a visual message to get their point across, but Facebook’s Peter Martinazzi had a great analogy for when it works, likening it to a receiving a personalized birthday card.

“I actually don’t buy birthday cards,” admitted Martinazzi. “But my aunt still buys me birthday cards and when she does, she could just write me a message that says ‘Happy Birthday’ but she goes and picks out the perfect card for me.

“That helps her get her message across,” said Martinazzi. “Right now, the way emoji works, it’s like giving that blank card.

“With the camera, you can kind of put your name behind it.”

Matt Swider