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The Smoothie of Social Media Apps
About a decade ago, Instagram piloted its photo-based mobile check-in app. The app’s launch was a success — it took less than a quarter of a year for the app to gain one million users. The app’s emphasis on sharing images complemented the growth in the popularity of camera phones.
Instagram became increasingly popular and threatened Facebook’s dominance in the social media space. In 2012, Facebook acquired Instagram, in a move many allege was Facebook “playing offense”.
Today, the app still retains its original features—the home screen is a series of vivid images uploaded by accounts that a user follows—but has since included many more forms of sharing information.
In 2016, Instagram released its “stories” feature, following Snapchat’s burst in popularity and a series of failed acquisition talks. Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram in 2012 was already a large concern for users and critics who alleged the deal was an acqui-hire that would lead to Instagram shutting down.
This latest addition to the app gained a lot of attention as it appeared to copy Snapchat’s primary feature — content viewable only a certain number of times or for a defined period of time before it “expires”. Both Snapchat and Instagram improved their “stories” concepts by adding emojis, filters, links, and AR-based features. Instagram has since been able to differentiate itself by allowing users to make certain stories permanently viewable from their profile.
Facebook then added stories to its main platform, and WhatsApp gained a new tab called “status”, which became another platform for users to share “stories” with their contacts.
IGTV and Facebook Video
Facebook also started competing with YouTube over its dominance in the video-sharing space in the mid-2010s. Facebook made deals with popular content creators to publish more content on their own platforms and used controversial user engagement metrics that made videos appear to have more engagement than they really did.
The platforms also began supporting livestreams as improved technology and infrastructure made such content easy to access for the average user.
The surge of Musical.ly and TikTok in the last few years introduced yet another popular content sharing “format” — short video clips dubbed with sound/music clips. This morning on August 5, Instagram officially released “Reels”, its own take on TikTok’s content format. The service was reportedly tested in India and Brazil prior to this large scale rollout.
TikTok has been inflamed in plenty of controversy in the past few months, from concerns about the relatively young age of its users, to data collection and transmission suspicions. The US Army banned TikTok over suspicions the app was a proxy for the CCP to collect American users’ data. Several reports also link to the same Reddit comment from a user who supposedly reverse engineered the app and found glaring privacy violations (I haven’t seen said user post any proof since, but perhaps I missed the news).
The increasing anti-China sentiment in the United States, amplified by the President’s blocking of Huawei and recent threats of banning TikTok, have created the perfect environment for Instagram’s “new” feature. Additionally, Microsoft’s ongoing talks with TikTok to transfer its entire codebase to the United States has created an interesting situation for TikTok and competing apps in the space.
Economies of Scale
Regardless of TikTok’s fate, the history of Facebook and Instagram display a clear offense tactic. Facebook has the “economies of scale” to analyze trends across the Internet and social media spaces, which it uses to experiment with new features on its own platforms. In my opinion, this behavior mirrors the behavior of another technology giant — Amazon.
In Jeff Bezos’ testimony to Congress last week, it became clear that Amazon may have used product metrics from its own platform to launch competing products to undercut sellers. Once again, a company used the vast amount of data and resources available to it to develop its own competing products/services. Amazon’s case is interesting because the bottom line is that Amazon runs its privately-controlled own marketplace, and so may choose to impose its own terms and rules under the guise of “analyzing trends”.
Instagram’s repeated behavior of copying competitors is also justified with similar reasoning — that the company simply found certain media to be popular amongst users, and thus decided to adopt their own version of such media. Truthfully, there may not even be anything particularly wrong with this approach — it’s basic market research, something that is usually a necessity for any firm competing in a market.
This approach does, however, become problematic when it can be reasonably proven that Instagram (or insert other giant) used its scale and resources to essentially “squash” competition, i.e. violating antitrust regulation. Although antitrust cases are generally difficult to prove, it may still be somewhat easier to find illegal practices in the world of physical commodities with clear pricing and producer information.
In the world of technology and data, it may be harder to prove that companies may be illegally colluding or seeking monopoly power.
Facebook/Instagram has access to vast troves of user data that can help it find emerging trends. Then, Instagram may continue to replicate competitors’ apps features under the guise of “improving their own service based on market trends”. Instagram will not mind doing this despite becoming an odd “Swiss army knife”/smoothie of social media formats — it supports (limited) text posts, hashtags, images, videos, stories, messaging, livestreams, and now the “TikTok format” (is there a catchy one-word nickname for this?).
Amazon has built its own marketplace on its own proprietary platform, which means it has exclusive rights to consumer and seller data. As long as it launches and promotes blatantly copied products on its own marketplace, it doesn’t really violate the concept of “free public markets” (as long as Amazon owns the market and doesn’t claim it’s “free” 🙃).
Google Chrome will continue to own the majority of the web browser market share and thus launch its own web features like AMP.
Competition and Concentration
And so, we continue to hurtle towards a future that will result in the concentration of power, wealth, and data in a few hands. People’s information will continue to live on Facebook’s network as long as Facebook/Instagram (or the third player Microsoft?) can smash competitors and replicate their features to stay relevant. Instagram will continue to appear like an “innocent” application by making it appear independent of Facebook.
Such monopolization has made it difficult for the population to live freely without using such services, despite high-profile exposés like the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In the late 1900s, the increasing prevalence of proprietary software led to the growth of the Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) movement. The last few years have seen the growth of decentralized networks that usually facilitate individual ownership of data, and it is now left to us to choose whether we want to continue to feed Facebook’s databases or take ownership of our own content and data.