Poof! Facebook tests Snapchat-like disappearing messages

Social network trying out the new feature on a small scale in France

If you can't buy 'em, copy 'em.

Facebook confirmed to Computerworld today that it is running a small test of a Snapchat-like feature, enabling users to send messages that will automatically disappear.

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A disappearing message in the Facebook test.

"We're excited to announce the latest in an engaging line of optional product features geared towards making Messenger the best way to communicate with the people that matter most," a Facebook spokesperson said in an email. "Starting today, we're conducting a small test in France of a feature that allows people to send messages that disappear an hour after they're sent. Disappearing messages gives people another fun option to choose from when they communicate on Messenger."

This should sound familiar to Snapchat users who are accustomed to their messages disappearing shortly after they're sent.

Users can turn the Facebook feature on by tapping an hourglass icon in the upper right corner of the Messenger screen. Tap the hourglass again to turn it off.

Facebook is testing disappearing messages for iOS and Android users in France only. While the feature may be available in more countries over time, Facebook didn't have any current plans to share.

This may be a good defensive move for the social network.

Facebook has been struggling to retain, or even attract, younger users who are being lured away by apps like Instagram and Snapchat.

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A Facebook message that's gone.

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research, has long noted that those all-important younger uses are forsaking Facebook for other sites. His own kids use Snapchat, Vine, Twitter and Tumblr, rather than Facebook.

To deal with this problem, Facebook tried to buy Snapchat for a reported $3 billion in late 2013. The offer was turned down, though.

Then in early 2014, Facebook tried to go after Snapchat's users by unveiling a new mobile app called Slingshot. The app was designed to enable users to instantly share photos and videos with multiple friends.

Now that Facebook is taking a different tack, the question is whether it can steal away Snapchat's user base.

"Since Facebook tried to buy Snapchat once, they clearly saw the value in it," said Kerravala. "This move will give them the functionality, but not the user base. It's a good move for Facebook, but it won't be easy to get kids to move over and leave Snapchat."

The move could be aimed more at retaining users. "This will help keep existing users, but they likely won't have people leave Snapchat," said Kerravala. "Facebook has been losing younger users for a while now. They had to make a move."

This isn't the first time Facebook has tested a similar service.

In September 2014, the company confirmed that it was eyeing disappearing posts and comments with mobile users. At the time, Facebook called it a small pilot on Facebook for iOS users.

The feature was not widely released.

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