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The ouroboros of social media is now so complicated that it's almost impossible to find its beginning. Snapchat debuted the Stories format, which Instagram copied, and is now a feature everywhere from LinkedIn to Twitter to YouTube. (That joke about Excel Stories seems a little more plausible every day.) Facebook's algorithmically-curated news feed is now the way most platforms work. Everybody got into video, then live video, then audio, at about the same pace. Everything from hashtags to @-usernames started in one place and eventually became ubiquitous. Most recently, TikTok's never-ending scroll of full-screen videos has become the latest way people navigate the internet, even on platforms far away from TikTok.
Snap has originated as many of these features as any other app, and so the newest Snapchat feature feels almost full circle. The company's launching Snapchat Spotlight, a vertically scrolling, never-ending list of full-screen videos that anyone on the platform can make. Which is to say, Snapchat is launching TikTok.
The execution does have a distinctly Snapchat-y flavor: Even private users (which is most Snapchatters) can upload public snaps to Spotlight without making their whole profile public. Instead of sending something to Stories and sharing it with friends, they can send it to Spotlight and share it with everybody. There are no public likes or comments. Every Spotlight video is checked — either by a human or Snap's AI moderation tools — before it's pushed to the massive public feed. And perhaps most enticingly, Snapchat's planning to pay more than $1 million a day to the most popular Spotlight snaps: which means going viral suddenly comes with guaranteed dollar signs attached.
The theory, though, is pure TikTok. Snap sees Spotlight as an entertainment platform, the kind of thing users can just sit and scroll through for hours at a time — assuming, of course, that they're not already doing the same thing on TikTok. Or Instagram Reels. Or Triller. Or Byte.
The great flattening of social features has been happening for some time, of course. Faulting one platform for copying the best things about another is like blaming Samsung for realizing that a black glassy rectangle is the right size of smartphone. And, in both cases, the shape of the thing is only a tiny part of the equation. Social media success may not have ever been about features, really. Facebook's been late to nearly every feature for a decade, and continues to win because it's just where everyone is. A whiz-bang new idea can help a new network get off the ground, but it's not enough to sustain things. Ultimately, the network is everything.
In 2018, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel said at the Code Conference that he was flattered by all the companies copying Snapchat's inventions and not worried that they were doing so. "Snapchat is not just a bunch of features," he said, "it has an underlying philosophy that really runs counter to traditional social media." It sounded a lot like what Kevin Systrom had said after he copied Snapchat Stories two years earlier. "This isn't about who invented something," he told TechCrunch in 2016. "This is about a format, and how you take it to a network and put your own spin on it." Snatching Stories wasn't, on its own, enough to make it work on Instagram, he said. "You can't just recreate another product. But you can say 'What's really awesome about a format? And does it apply to our network?'"
Instagram, in other words, wasn't the sum of its features and content boxes. It was something less quantifiable and more important: the people who came to the service and what they expected to do and feel there. That feeling increasingly pervades the industry. "When I think about other platforms, a lot of it resonates with me for how I talk to my family or my friends," Tomer Cohen, LinkedIn's global head of product, told me recently. "But when I think about how I talk to my colleagues, how I interact professionally, this is the need that LinkedIn is meeting." In other words, LinkedIn Stories are different from Instagram Stories by sheer virtue of the fact that they're on LinkedIn. Even posts feel different; whenever LinkedIn-speak makes its way onto Twitter, for instance, people get mad.
For Snapchat, the focus is still on creation. TikTok and Instagram open straight to the feed — and in fact, Instagram recently moved the post creation button out of the main toolbar altogether — but Snapchat still opens to the camera. That's not going to change. Snapchat is already the place so many users instinctively go when they want to capture something, because it's where they go to share with their friends. Snap's just hoping that when they grab something the whole world needs to see, they'll still share it on Spotlight instead of heading over to TikTok.
Over the next few years, as every social network continues to march inexorably toward looking and working exactly like every other social network, the next phase of their evolution will be less about the product and more about the network. The race to be everything to everyone is mostly over, Facebook and Instagram mostly won, and that increasingly seems like a position few others want to be in. (It comes with a lot of Congressional hearings.) Instead, each company will try to find its own feeling and niche, and lean into it.
Take Twitter Fleets, for instance, the company's take on Stories. Why would people post to Fleets rather than Instagram Stories, Snapchat Stories, LinkedIn Stories, YouTube Stories or TikTok? It's a simple question, and yet a hugely consequential one for Twitter or any company that doesn't provide a clear answer. And any social media pro knows that posting the same thing everywhere simply doesn't work.
Creating this feeling comes down to both a platform's unofficial norms and its official rules. In most cases, "anything goes" won't fly much longer, and the few places that keep their lax policies — whether 4chan or Parler, or even something like Clubhouse — will become known as the places to exploit those policies. That's why Cohen said LinkedIn has always been explicit about creating a space that feels more like an office, where there are stricter rules on how people behave compared to how they might with their friends.
There are surely more features to invent, new platforms to copy and new tools to build for people to be creative online. But what works well will immediately be everywhere. And the platforms that win may not be the ones that invent the most features, but the ones that attach those features to a community who knows exactly why they're there.