Commentary

Social Media Madness -- Who Is Leading Whom?

If imitation is the best form of flattery, then over the last couple of months, Snapchat has been receiving a lot of compliments as other social networks have lined up to introduce Snapchat-esque features to their own platforms.

Of course, in the world of social networking there is nothing new about one platform aping another. Long before Snapchat become a major player, Twitter and Facebook had often introduced new features that seemed to be influenced by something the other one was doing successfully (Facebook pushing Trending Topics and hashtags being prime examples). And even though Google+ never quite achieved the heights that some had expected, many of its innovations had a clear impact on the way its rivals organised their own services.

Even so, the number of Snapchat-like features that have now been introduced to other services is still noteworthy. Facebook Messenger has developed Codes -- scannable series of dots around a profile picture that allow users to add people as contacts -- exactly the same as Snapcodes. Twitter now has Stickers that you can place across your photos -- something highly reminiscent of how things work on Snapchat. Over on Facebook, the largely unsuccessful arrival of Slingshot as well as editing features that allow people to swipe through filters, position text/emoji and draw on images was followed up by the acquisition of MSQRD (a developer that makes animated filters to allow you to change your face).

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Most striking of all, though, is Instagram, the photo-centric service that arguably has the most to lose if it fails to keep up with Snapchat. For its new Stories feature, it didn’t even attempt to find a different name for the chains of photos that appear in a slide show format and then vanish within 24 hours. It’s a blatant copy of what happens on Snapchat, with Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom acknowledging that Evan Spiegel’s app ‘deserve[s] all the credit’.

Snapchat itself has not been immune from this tactic either. As it continues its transition from an ephemeral teen app to a mainstream social network, it has brought in something similar to a home page/feed where users can read articles from brands on Discover and see recent photo/video updates from their friends. Its Memories feature also allows users to store photos and video clips for later viewing or re-sharing -- a bold departure from its original modus operandi whereby all content disappeared.   

All this begs the question of why social networks are so keen to copy each other, and why Snapchat has been a particular target for imitation. That Evan Spiegel’s app is still growing so strongly is an obvious factor here. Once upon a time, Snapchat was wildly popular among teens in mature markets across North America, Europe and parts of APAC. Now, our data shows that Snapchat’s popularity is spreading geographically and growing in older age groups. If it was once just a messaging app for Western teens, it is very quickly becoming a major cross-demographic social network in its own right. Little wonder that other names in this space are keen to take on some of its best features, then.

That social networking behaviours continue to evolve is another key reason. Look at services like Facebook and Twitter, and our research shows that the top actions on both networks are now quite passive in nature -- with users more likely to be viewing or sharing posts submitted by others rather than contributing their own content. A lot of personal sharing that used to take place in these newsfeeds appears to have migrated to messaging services like WhatsApp and Snapchat, where users feel they have more control over who sees their posts and for how long. That’s not a problem per se for names like Facebook; as long as people keep visiting the service -- which our data confirms that they are still doing in their droves -- then ads can be served and profits generated accordingly. Nevertheless, it’s not hard to see why the biggest names in the social networking space would want to encourage as much sharing and posting as possible among their users, and thus have been looking to imitate things that work on a service like Snapchat.    

Highly relevant here is that the multi-networking trend continues to flourish. According to our data from 34 countries, the typical internet user now has around 7 social media/messaging accounts -- up from just 3 back in 2012. Look just at 16- to-24-year-olds and that figure rises even higher, to stand at an average of 8 accounts. So, people are maintaining a presence across a wide range of platforms, and the challenge for all of these names is to keep their users active and, if possible, to convince them to share and contribute content directly. If an Instagrammer is highly likely to be a Facebooker and a Snapchatter too, it makes sense to give them popular features that they’re already using elsewhere.

One of the obvious challenges that comes with this is how a social network maintains a distinct identity when so many features are available across multiple services. As Snapchat tries to become more like a mainstream social network, and these same networks try to become more like Snapchat, there will be fewer and fewer USPs for each platform. But with our data showing that the average daily time devoted to social networks and messaging apps continues to rise, this clearly isn’t an issue for users themselves. So Instagram’s Stories might have been the most recent overt and direct case of imitation seen for far, but it certainly won’t be the last.

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