Social platforms are going niche: the end of copycat features
Photo: Charles Deluvio
It has long been a recurring strategy for social platforms to borrow one another’s successful features – to the benefit of the incumbents, and the difficulty of new players trying to break through. The cultural blip of Clubhouse is one such example: the platform brought audio-first ‘spaces’ to the social scene, saw significant interest, and then the feature was promptly introduced to Twitter through Spaces, which spelled the cultural doom of the less mainstream, standalone platform.
However, the game may be changing. TikTok introduced social video to the social scene, which was quickly adopted by Instagram through Reels and YouTube through Shorts. But this has not hindered mainstream uptake of the platform (although this may be because TikTok had already fine-tuned its algorithm in Eastern markets, giving it better footing by which to hold its own). However, BeReal, a much smaller competitor, offers a different narrative.
BeReal or BeDone
TikTok has just called it quits on its BeReal clone, TikTok Now, after less than a year. The fact that it adopted the feature in the first place indicates the popularity that the authentic daily snapshot has among its users. That it has disbanded with the project means that the Clubhouse model has not repeated itself. BeReal still stands alone, and it is not worth the investment to continue to run direct competition on the bigger app.
MIDiA’s next media report (out next week) offers a look into why this may be the case. While the social platforms see large overlaps in their userbases, the weekly active userbases of each app have different social proclivities – Snapchat and WhatsApp users primarily use social platforms to catch up with friends, while TikTok and Twitter users look for content discovery. Twitch and Discord users are digital-first socialisers, looking to grow their networks and meet new people online. In short, the days of social platforms competing head-to-head in like-for-like usage are over; each platform now fills a certain niche in their users’ lives, with some better suited for content, some for socialising with friends from their real lives, and some for a whole separate world of digital-first interaction. TikTok, despite its ‘Friends’ tab and messenger capabilities, is more of a content app than a social one – and thus the crossover with BeReal did not fit the way in which its users like to engage.
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BeReal has managed to find its niche use case, which does not compete with the other platforms but can be used alongside. The other platforms should take note – especially the biggest ones, which already have such a mosaic of use cases that it is difficult to establish any outstanding cultural momentum. When you are a catch-all for everything, you cannot lead in anything, and it is standing out from the crowd, not competing with it, that now gives the edge in users’ digital lives.
Nothing left to break but themselves
There is another aspect as well, as exhibited by Reddit’s recent blackouts. The page ‘boycotts’ may be in name about the free use of Reddit’s API, but there is far more to it than that. Reddit is the frontier of what will likely be a debate that spills far beyond its borders: the clash of powers between platforms for user-generated content that need to make money, and the users who generate the content that makes the platforms valuable in the first place. As a result, platforms are having to share revenues with those creators – which is threatening their margins.
Digital entertainment was made possible by tech as a bigger movement, and tech itself blossomed as a cutting-edge industry led by “rogue intellectuals” who set out to “build fast and break things”. Fast they have built, and much they have broken – but they are no longer insurgents with an industry to remake through innovation. They now are the industry, with nothing left to break but themselves (and each other), and shareholders are demanding returns – in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis and global economic uncertainty.
Thus, we are at an inflection point (again). New social platforms are finding it harder to break into the scene and gain significant uptake, but more incumbent platforms have use cases that are specific enough so they cannot simply absorb the innovations that the would-be-disruptors provide. Moreover, the cultural audience shift towards values of scarcity, creativity, and authenticity are opposed to the traditionally polished ‘influencer’ content offered on the social apps – and threaten their USP if they cannot adapt. Amid all of this, revenues are dropping, and the apps are having to find ways to directly monetise users rather than continue to rely mainly on data and ad sales – a difficult ask in such a dynamic. As creators on-platform begin to demand returns for their value, the platforms will continue to find it more difficult to disrupt themselves without pushback, and platform fragmentation, rather than consolidation, will emerge.