Last week, like a lot of people, I idly went to check my notifications on Instagram. Instead, I was taken straight to the app's shopping feature. I was confused. The buttons had been moved around and my muscle memory had led me into a trap. When I went to post, a similar thing happened. The button took me to Reels, a newish 15-second video clip carousel feature. I didn't want to go on Reels. I didn't want to go shopping, either.
In 2020, our social media apps have been inching ever closer together. Back in May, Instagram rolled out Instagram Shop, which closely resembles the reseller app Depop in style and functionality. In August came Reels, which is basically their version of TikTok. Then on the 17th of November, Twitter launched Fleets, which is almost no different to Instagram Stories, which in turn was an old copycat of Snapchat Stories, which was – deep breath – also copied by Facebook Stories. Today, you can basically use all apps for the same things.
Without sounding like a Luddite, this mushing together can feel a bit… jarring, or at least, confusing. Each app used to have its place: Instagram is supposed to be the horny app, where we post mirror selfies and candid pics of freshly manicured hands holding books like On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. On Twitter, you don't have to be fit, you can just “have opinions” or keep up with the news and be angry. TikTok is where you go to escape all of the above and just watch funny videos. Snapchat is for children. Why muddy the waters?
The thing is, apps like Twitter and Instagram don't really care about muddying the waters, according to Professor Christian Fuchs, author of Social Media: A Critical Introduction. Their only goal is to get maximum eyes on the screen.
“Social media platforms compete with each other for users, clicks and especially ad revenues,” he explains to VICE UK. “The social media economy is an advertising economy and is today already highly concentrated. This development is likely to continue because capitalist competition has a monopoly tendency.”
There's evidence that such blatant copycatting works when it comes to striking down competition. When Instagram released Stories in 2016, Snapchat had around 143 million active daily users for essentially the same feature. Just two years later, Instagram Stories' active daily users had skyrocketed to 400 million, while Snapchat's growth rate has slowed. That same year, Snapchat announced that it had lost three million users over three months – its ever first drop in audience.
Still, no app stays in the spotlight for long. TikTok is now biting at Instagram's heels. In March 2020, TikTok became the most downloaded non-game app worldwide with more than 115.2 million downloads. For comparison, Instagram only averaged around 111.5 million installs every three months in 2019. It's perhaps no coincidence that Instagram swiftly rolled out Reels a year later. New features get stale real quick, and apps are constantly scrambling over each other to stay fresh.
Dr Mark Wong, a University of Glasgow lecturer in public policy and research methods, has done extensive research on social media and digital interactions. He tells me that apps copying each other isn't just a “traditional tactic to take the competitor out,” but also a case of diversifying their user base “to enhance and broaden the data and algorithmic infrastructure they build and monetise from”. Take Twitter for example, which is typically used by older millennials and journalists – introduce Fleets, and they might encourage younger or more casual users to join, meaning they get a wider range of audience data to sell.
Sounds creepy. But what happens when all the social media apps eventually merge into a one-stop-shop for all? Will everyone get sick of using these oversaturated apps? It's hard to predict the future, but if we take a look back on how the past has panned out, new apps tend to swallow up older ones. FaceParty, MySpace, Bebo, Tumblr… if a platform can't keep up, it gets tossed onto the digital graveyard. The question is: which one will be next?
Wong thinks we have bigger concerns when it comes to the pervasiveness of so many features. Not just for the obvious “apps are harvesting my data!” reasons, but because the algorithm and design of these features tend to favour certain voices over others. Just take a look at earlier this year, when Instagram came under fire for removing images of Black, plus-size bodies, or back in September, when a viral photo experiment revealed racial bias in Twitter's AI, or the many instances in which social media apps have been accused of de-platforming sex workers. When it comes to the latter, both Twitter and Instagram have claimed that they only ever enforce community guidelines, as opposed to targetting an industry. "Anyone is welcome to use Twitter so long as they abide by the Twitter Rules and our terms of service,” a spokesperson told VICE Canada back in 2018.
Wong begs to differ. “Many researchers have already shown concerns around algorithmic justice and potential racial and gender biases of the design of these platforms,” he explains. “If these features are becoming increasingly ubiquitous, while ethical concerns are not yet fully addressed, then the potential implication could be disastrous – especially for those whose voices and identities are already marginalised on one platform and increasingly more in others.”
Some apps have made moves to make their features and algorithms less discriminatory. Earlier this year, Instagram banned pro-conversion therapy content, while both Facebook and Instagram have pledged to examine racial bias on their platforms – though Facebook employees claimed in July that management had repeatedly ignored internal racial bias research. In response, Alex Schultz, Facebook's vice president of growth and analytics, told NPR that research and analyses on race are important to Facebook but is a “very charged topic” and so needs to be done rigorously.
“There will be people who are upset with the speed we are taking action,” he said, adding that “we’ve massively increased our investment” in understanding hate speech and algorithmic bias. Still, it’s intensely worrying to think that apps might be rolling out new features faster than they are examining their ethical implications.
It might sound like wishful thinking, but Wong thinks that social media apps really need to be more mindful when it comes to any of these new features.
“Platforms must re-consider before implementing a feature that seems 'trendy' and popular,” he says. “Questions remain about to whom and what majority the feature is beneficial to, and there could be a cost to marginalised voices and experiences being further silenced, neglected and discriminated against by wide implementation across different platforms.”
As ever, the one true solution to all of the above is probably to delete all your apps and then smash up your smartphone while you're at it. Obviously, that's not exactly realistic for most. Social media has become too far integrated into our jobs, our social connections and the way we see what's going on in the world. Until that no longer applies, maybe catch you on Stories (all of them).