Social media is having your quarter-life crisis, if a quarter-life crisis is a thing, if we can even put a lifetime on social media, that could actually play a part in our society by the end of time. After 25 years of status updates, news feeds, clever tweets, performative photos and endless scrolls, the American social media companies that have captured our attention and monetized it so successfully are running out of new ideas and looking to reinvent themselves.
We are lucky?
About 18 months ago, 3D immersion via face computers would reinvigorate our online social experience. Facebook believed in this vision so strongly that it changed its name to Meta to reflect it. Having more recently determined that something a little simpler could increase engagement, Meta launched Threads — basically, Twitter for Instagram.
Now video app TikTok is introducing a way to compose text posts – its own version of the Compose feature found in Instagram Stories. Accessible through the app’s camera, where users typically go to post videos or photos, the new text option is billed by TikTok as “the latest addition to content creation options, allowing creators to share their stories, poems, recipes, and other written content on TikTok.” Text: This is the future. It comes just after Twitter rebranded itself as X, as part of the company’s broader strategy to become an all-in-one app, like WeChat in China.
TikTok’s new text feature, which seems mostly additive, and Twitter’s brand pivot, which seems mostly superfluous, are not in themselves causes for angst. But they’re part of an evolution in the social media landscape, where the polite “borrowing” of features has turned into a real land grab for our frayed attention spans. Whether through subscriptions, purchases, payments or AI-infused products, social media companies are doing everything they can to counter both an unpredictable ad market and people’s limited ability to use a dozen different social apps.
“If we evaluate these apps from a legacy technology innovation perspective, then yes, they copy each other and there are no new ideas,” says Chris Messina, a software product designer who is credited with introducing the hashtag to Twitter. “But the best way to understand it is that social media is now a fad industry, so as a product manager you measure success based on engagement and retention, not innovation.”
Messina also adds that he thinks X (née Twitter) is now “incredibly vulnerable, and the most competitive teams, like Meta and TikTok, won’t sit idly by if they can each carve up Twitter’s old advertising base.”
Meta’s early success with Instagram Threads – over 100 million sign-ups in less than a week – has been largely attributed to its platform advantage; Over a billion people already use Instagram, and porting your Instagram identity to Threads is frictionless. But that’s only success in metrics – quantitative, not qualitative. (In any case, daily active users on Threads would have fallen.) Threads still doesn’t have a web or desktop app, hasn’t rolled out its promised timeline stream, and doesn’t yet support a more open source protocol than the company has announced it will support.