Unsplash/Prateek Katyal

Are social media apps losing their identities?

Social media platforms are growing increasingly similar in terms of the features they offer today. Snapchat launched its ‘stories’ feature in 2013, allowing users to post pictures and videos which are made available to their followers for 24 hours only. Since then, many other platforms such as WhatsApp, Instagram, and LinkedIn have also adopted similar features.

Twitter became the latest social network to hop on the bandwagon. It released a new feature last month coined ‘Fleets’ which allows users to post temporary tweets. Joshua Harris, Twitter’s director of design, said its purpose was to “[create] a lower-pressure way for people to join the conversation”.

Social media users now find themselves faced with multiple platforms offering nearly identical features

Despite the company’s intentions of providing users with a broader range of features, however, Fleets seem to be yet another replica of the stories feature which Snapchat pioneered seven years ago. As social media users now find themselves faced with multiple platforms offering nearly identical features, they may begin to wonder: how are social media platforms even different from each other these days?

Take Instagram, for example. The number of features it offers has steadily increased over the past few years. In its recent update, Instagram had redesigned the application’s layout so that its two new features – Instagram Reels and Instagram Shopping – are now anchored to the navigation bar at the bottom of the screen.

Reels is Instagram’s most recent innovation and was first launched in late 2019 to compete against rising social media giant TikTok. It allows users to record and edit videos using in-app tools and effects. Similar to TikTok, Reels uploaded from public accounts may also appear on Instagram’s Explore page – meaning that anyone on Instagram will potentially be able to see and interact with the video.

Numerous brands have taken advantage of this feature for their own marketing purposes as it allows them to create short clips to highlight their latest campaign or product. The option of making videos available to the public means that companies can reach a larger audience and increase consumer engagement as well. One example is luxury brand Louis Vuitton which has used Reels to promote its new collections, amassing millions of views per video and becoming one of the most successful brands on Instagram to use the feature.

Social media creators and influencers are also potential stakeholders who might benefit from using Reels. The feature was introduced right before U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to ban TikTok in the US. This controversial act served as an incentive for many TikTok users to start using Reels instead, as they feared that they would no longer be able to use TikTok. Many TikTok-famous influencers have also reposted their content onto their Reels in hopes of growing their following on Instagram and on other platforms.

Reels may just be another TikTok copycat

Nevertheless, the striking similarities between the two applications have also earned it a fair amount of criticism. To the common user, Reels may just be another TikTok copycat. 87% of TikTok users claim that the new feature is “basically the same” as Instagram’s rival app, according to a Forbes article.

Influencer James Charles seemed to agree with this sentiment when he took to his Instagram story to protest: “Nobody fucking asked for Reels, we have TikTok for a reason.” Even The New York Times has dubbed the feature as a “TikTok Clone” – and a “Dud” at that.

Rumours have also arisen regarding Instagram’s plans to overthrow its competitor. The app had reportedly offered popular TikTok creators large sums of money to use Reels, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Instagram reported a total of 130 million monthly users who tap on a product link to find out more about it

Instagram Shopping is also another new addition to the social media app. It allows online businesses to tag their products in their posts or stories. When a user taps on the tag, it then directs them to a separate page containing information on the product, including its price. Instagram reported a total of 130 million monthly users who tap on a product link to find out more about it, according to a 2019 survey.

This feature is mainly catered towards businesses who wish to grow their online presence and increase consumer engagement. It acts as an intermediary whereby consumers browsing a brand’s products on Instagram can be directly connected to the company’s website for an easier and more convenient checkout.

While this feature arguably adds value to the app, especially for businesses, users protest that Instagram is deviating too much from its original purpose. Co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Kreiger created Instagram in 2010 with the app starting off as a platform where users could post “good-looking, edited, photographs”.

A decade later, Instagram has developed into one of the largest social media platforms in the world. To keep up with its growth, it has also drastically broadened the scope of features it offers to users. Its latest attempt at diversifying its offerings, however, has been met with a number of critical reviews.

Many users have taken to social media to share their grievances on Instagram’s new layout. One user complained that the update was too “tacky”, while another wrote that it was “truly a nightmare of an update”.

It makes it very, very clear where their priorities lie, and that is making money and only making money

– James Charles

James Charles also stated in his rant that “they moved everything around and it makes it very, very clear where their priorities lie, and that is making money and only making money…Instagram keeps making changes that literally nobody is asking for”. Other users have also shared that the application was becoming too cluttered and overrun with features. In response to the controversy of the app’s new design Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, responded: “The world is changing quickly, and if we don’t adapt, we risk becoming irrelevant.”

This seems to be the mindset of many social media platforms these days. Each one hopes to attract more users and grow its consumer base. As profit-driven companies, they ultimately strive to capture the largest market share possible to increase their revenue.In doing so, social networks today have become increasingly blinded by their desperation to keep up with current trends. They have gradually shifted their focus from finding their own niche in the realm of social media to worrying about how to best counter their competitors’ next move or what the next big release will be.

Social media companies’ fears of falling behind in their digital innovations have led to the never-ending cycle of platforms copying each other’s features. This has created a sense of homogeneity and lack of originality between the various apps as a result.

While the social media giants battle it out among themselves, opportunities await for new entrants. Nicole Greene, a social media analyst from research firm Gartner, warns that budding companies may quietly slip in with new, original ideas and catch the other platforms unawares.  Greene argues that in the midst of each platform’s obsession with keeping up with the latest trend, there is “space for these new, more niche disruptors to gain traction and provide experiences that aren’t being delivered on.”

One of the biggest challenges networks face today is preserving their identity while still maintaining competitiveness in the social media industry. In time to come, we may see a further increase in the number of similarities across social media networks and it may soon be even more difficult to distinguish between the different social media platforms.

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