Emails show Mark Zuckerberg feared app startups were building faster than Facebook in 2012

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Newly released emails from April 2012 show Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other executives were frustrated by slow internal prototyping and weighed the benefits of quickly copying and iterating on smaller apps like Pinterest instead.

A chain of messages starts with Zuckerberg recounting a meeting with the founders of Chinese social networking app Renren. “In China there is this strong culture of cloning things quickly and building lots of different products,” he wrote. “Seeing all this and the pace that new mobile apps seem to be coming out from other companies makes me think we’re moving very slowly. … I wonder what we could do to move a lot faster.”

The messages were released on Wednesday as part of a House Judiciary Committee probe.

Other employees, some of their names redacted, agreed that “copying is faster than innovating,” even if they worried it would give Facebook a bad reputation in the industry. “We spend a lot of time on products and iterations on products that are not that used,” said one person. “If you gave the top-down order to go ahead, copy e.g. Pinterest or the gaming dynamics on Foursquare … I am sure [a] very small team of engineers, a [product manager], and a designer would get it done super quickly.”

“I would love to be far more aggressive and nimble in copying competitors at the interface / last mile level,” said another. “Let’s ‘copy’ (aka super-set) Pinterest!”

The final email in the chain compared this approach favorably against the slow development of two internal products, known as “Snap” and “Roger.” There’s not much information about these, but Roger was apparently a messaging system comparable to WhatsApp, which Facebook acquired in 2014, and Snap was a potential competitor to Instagram. “We spend a lot of time making sure our designs fit conventions or settings are future-proofed. … I’ve noticed this being something that has slowed us down on Roger and other projects,” the email said. “Startups have the best of both worlds: [they] siphon our graph to build a new system … and it lets them create a different product experience.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) suggested in a hearing yesterday that Facebook used the threat of cloning products to push smaller competitors into selling, including Instagram, which was acquired days after these emails were sent. “Has Facebook ever threatened to clone the products of another company while also trying to acquire that company?” she asked. “Congresswoman, not that I recall,” responded Zuckerberg.

Facebook has since developed a reputation for cloning apps. It’s launched a series of app features that copy Snapchat functions, including Instagram Stories in 2016. It released, then recently shuttered, a TikTok-inspired app called Lasso and a Pinterest-like app called Hobbi. This exchange lays out some of the possible reasoning behind these decisions and describes an alternative approach that Facebook decided simply didn’t work.

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