Everyone Loves a Good Story: Why are Social Media features so similar?

Social media has revolutionized the way we interact. It is impossible to deny that our ability to communicate visually has been enhanced by an astronomical degree following the creation of social media. It is a powerful tool. Yet much like for every other service in our society, the market for social media is fiercely competitive. This competition puts pressure on companies to have the latest, best feature regardless of the feature’s impact on the aesthetics and functionality of the platform. The end result of this feature-race is, unfortunately, extreme similarity between the platforms’ functions.

While each social media platform retains certain elements or restrictions which differentiate them from their competitors, a large fraction of the features are the same. Take “Stories”, originally a Snapchat only feature, which had with relative speed spread to Facebook and Instagram. Corresponding to the creation of Instagram Stories, Snapchat’s growth slowed, hitting the lowest growth rate since the app’s creation in 2014. While the ‘borrowing’ of the Stories feature can be justified by competitive companies trying to fight it out for user engagement, the spread of Stories from Instagram to Facebook is harder to explain. It becomes even more difficult to conceive of the motivations of introducing Stories on messenger service, WhatsApp. The feature has spread from app to app, yet has not undergone any drastic change and thus retains its Snapchat-clone feel. Perhaps this is an attempt to hit Snapchat where it hurts, driving it out of the market through pure brute force. Yet this pursuit has created four apps with almost identical formats, with a camera laden with filters or pictures just one right swipe away, and Stories lined up neatly at the top of the app.

There are only so many tools one needs to complete a simple task. While distinctions between the apps still undoubtedly exist, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat at their core are apps with a chat feature, the ability to share written and visual content, and a feed. Faced with a choice of three almost identical apps, a given user will likely choose the one or two apps which are most popular with their friends. Statistically, the app of choice is Facebook. But by essentially concentrating every feature of every other social media app within Facebook, the need for other apps diminishes. While this may seem like good news for Zuckerberg, since Facebook’s aggressive acquisition campaign now puts the company in charge of Instagram and WhatsApp, the hyper-concentration of features within one app doesn’t make sense.

Facebook as a parent company needs to switch out of the every-man-for-himself frame of thinking. Rather than a competitor in a market with many producers, Facebook is effectively a monopoly. Therefore, their model of adding as many features to their app as possible will no longer be the profit-maximizing strategy. If they specialise the apps to providing a handful of unique services or with unique features, Facebook could dramatically increase the number of users on each of their platforms. So, rather than choosing one app, customers can use several apps for different purposes.

Not only would this increase user numbers, but it would also mean that each user stays online for longer. When opening up each of the specialised apps, the consumer would spend at least some portion of the time passively browsing, which results from the natural curiosity which social media relies on. Think of the amount of time an average person spends on Facebook as a result of a ‘check-in’ peek or single notification. Now, multiply that by four apps. With this increased traffic, advertising can be so much more effective. Instead of hitting one consumer on one platform, the same consumer can be hit from four different angles.

Facebook justifies the Stories feature migrating to all their platforms by alluding to the plans for a new and improved augmented reality camera, which would allegedly differentiate them from Snapchat. However, introducing the augmented camera across all their apps fails to differentiate them from each other. Snapchat is already in its death throes, no augmented reality necessary, so what’s the point?

Perhaps Facebook’s eventual goal is the complete integration of all the apps they currently own. While this sounds strange, it may not be an entirely unfounded theory.  In fact, you can already cross-post your story from Instagram to Facebook. It is possible that the differentiation route is being knowingly foregone in favour of a totally integrated social media, where different sections correspond to specific apps. A single right swipe hides not only a camera but an Instagram-style feed. However, it is difficult to consider the kind of economic model this would imply. One of the most amazing things about social media is the way it disrupts conventional assumptions about human nature, markets and fundamental economics. The way Facebook’s plans play out is definitely something to watch.