Social media wars

Joe Verity ponders what it takes to control the internet.

“If we don’t create the thing that kills Facebook, someone else will.”

Mark Zuckerberg delivered this ominous message to all Facebook employees, shortly before taking the company public in 2012. Establishing a goal of self-destruction may seem counterintuitive for what was, and continues to be, the most used social media platform in the world — but Zuckerberg’s rallying cry speaks to an intimate knowledge of the internet’s capricious tendencies and the ephemerality of success. Maintaining Facebook users’ discerning patronship would require agile anticipation and excessive indulgence of their desires by embedding the app into the daily habits of millions.

The task at hand would eventually lead to one of the industry’s biggest conflicts: a quest for growth which sidelined the moral implications of user addiction and imitation. “‘Embracing change’ isn’t enough,” Zuckerberg declared. “The internet is not a friendly place. Things that don’t stay relevant don’t even get the luxury of leaving ruins. They disappear.”

Zuckerberg spoke from experience, having recently emerged the victor in social media’s first decade, as former competitors, MySpace and Friendster, collapsed into obsolescence. But the appetite for innovation was growing amongst users. Facebook had nearly saturated the ‘orthodox’ social media market, with one billion users by 2012. However, young users in particular were searching for a platform separate from their parents’ prying eyes and the formalised ubiquity Facebook had come to imply. Two particular startups emerged as contenders for this new demographic—Instagram and Snapchat.

Change had arrived, and Facebook enthusiastically remained committed to ‘embracing’ it. Instagram was swiftly bought in 2012 for the price of one billion dollars, roughly thirty-three dollars per active user. In late 2013, Zuckerberg would offer Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel three billion for his company—a cost of roughly one hundred dollars per active user at the time. Spiegel declined. His ‘embrace’ rejected, Zuckerberg’s task was singular: squash Snapchat.

Five years on, Facebook has almost achieved its goal — not just toppling Snapchat, but, in an echo of Zuckerberg’s prophecy, creating the “thing that kills Facebook.” Though perhaps not yet an existential threat to its parent platform, which now has over two billion users, Instagram boasts over 500 million daily users, compared to Snapchat’s stagnating 187 million. So what happened? How did Facebook recapture the teenage market? And will Snapchat be relegated to the same unmarked mass grave home to Facebook’s previous competitors.

At first, Facebook seemed either naive or arrogant enough to think it could outright usurp Snapchat’s ubiquity through full scale imitation. Two apps were trialled, both ill fated: Poke, an out-and-out clone, lasted about 18 months following its launch in 2012, and a second iteration, Slingshot, lasted about the same amount of time until its death in late 2015.

By 2016, however, Snapchat had almost reached saturation point. The meteoric rise which had catapulted the platform into competition with Facebook began to slow, and with it, the two functionally unique platforms began to converge. With few users left unclaimed, both platforms were forced to expand beyond their niche by way of imitating each other, desperately searching for new methods to claim their users’ attention.

Facebook recognised the importance of ephemerality in posts, and in mid-2016, having adopted the informal slogan “don’t be too proud to copy”, rolled out stories across Messenger, Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram. Inexplicably, the feature bombed on all platforms but the latter, where it found phenomenal success: the app, which previously lacked any time sensitive features, saw an explosion in habitual use, with the number of daily users skyrocketing from 200 million to 500 million within six months in 2017.

Unlike previous attempts to stifle the growth of Snapchat by getting to new users first, Instagram’s stories feature pilfered the attention of existing Snapchat users. Whilst its competitor soared with 150 per cent user growth, Snapchat’s stories feature stagnated; the number of users posting stories remained static, whilst the amount viewing increased by less than 5 per cent. This setback seemed to be only exacerbated by a drastic redesign of the user interface in February 2018, a move which prompted a viral petition to reinstate the old design, and a public condemnation from Kylie Jenner which wiped $1.3 billion from Snap’s market cap.

“After the Snapchat redesign, I just found it so hard to navigate between stories and individual messages. It got to a point where I was not viewing anyone else’s story at all,” said one USyd student.

Whilst Snapchat no longer seems to be the platform for public broadcasting, the number of users accessing its chat and direct messaging features have continued to steadily incline. With Instagram currently piloting its standalone direct messaging app in a handful of countries however, Snapchat could see its last bastion of relevance eroded.

“I’ve already found myself sending photos through Instagram in the same way I would through Snapchat. I could easily see myself abandoning Snapchat in the future,” said another student. “If you asked me to delete it today, I probably would. I could delete it right now, and not miss anything.”

If Snapchat really is doomed, then how did Instagram do it? One answer might be the quality of content. When commenting on one of Snapchat’s defining features, the ‘streak’, several USyd students pointed out the inane content it encourages users to create, reducing their engagement with the app from reciprocal dialogue to superficial streak upkeep.

“I am one lost streak away from deleting Snapchat entirely,” said one user, visibly afflicted by some kind of digital Stockholm Syndrome. “I hate Snapchat so much, and I hate that I can’t stop quantifying it through streaks.”

The issue of compulsive use is an inevitable product of what has been a drawn out battle for users’ time. In the economy of attention, the creation of addictive interfaces have left mental health neglected. There is an almost 40% chance that Australian internet users will access social media more than five times a day, for a total of at least an hour on average. A British study found that apps such as Instagram and Snapchat, which are among the most used in Australia, are the most harmful for users’ mental health, as both were found to be reliable inducers of ‘fear of missing out’—FoMO. One former Facebook executive responsible for user growth expressed regret over the methods used to attract users, claiming he had been “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works” by creating “social validation feedback loops” which “programme” behaviour.

Could there by any sign of respite for users now that Facebook is one step closer to claiming its monopoly, and the bitter contest for users has somewhat quelled? Zuckerberg would like you to think so. In 2018, the company’s goal is to make its platforms not “just fun, but also good for people’s well being and for society.” For now, perhaps it’s just best to just enjoy the solace so humbly bequeathed to us.

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