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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Social Media Has Run Out of Fresh Ideas

Social media is having its quarter-life crisis, if a quarter-life crisis is a thing, if we can even put a lifespan on social media, which might in fact play a role in our society from now until the end of time. After 25 years of status updates, news feeds, clever tweets, performative photos, and endless scrolls, the US social media companies that have commandeered our attention and monetized it so successfully have run out of fresh ideas and are looking to reinvent themselves.

Lucky us?

Some 18 months ago, 3D immersion via face computers was going to reinvigorate our online social experience. Facebook believed in this vision so firmly that it changed its name to Meta to reflect it. Having determined more recently that something a little simpler might jack up engagement, Meta launched Threads—basically, Twitter for Instagram.

Now the video app TikTok is introducing a way to compose text-based posts—its own version of the Create feature found in Instagram Stories. Accessed 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 options for content creation, allowing creators to share their stories, poems, recipes, and other written content on TikTok.” Text: It’s the future. This comes right on the heels of Twitter rebranding itself as X, part of the company’s broader strategy for becoming an everything-app, like China’s WeChat.

TikTok’s new text feature, which feels mostly additive, and Twitter’s brand pivot, which feels mostly superfluous, are not by themselves causes for existential angst. But they’re part of an evolution in the social media landscape, where the polite “borrowing” of features has turned into a full-fledged land grab for our frayed attention spans. Whether through subscriptions, shopping, payments, or AI-infused products, social media companies are throwing everything at the wall to counter both an unpredictable ad market and people’s limited capacity for using a dozen different social apps.

“If we evaluate these apps from the legacy technology-innovation lens, then yes—they’re copying 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 better way to understand it is that social media is now a fashion industry, so as a product manager, you’re evaluating success based on engagement and retention, not innovation.”

Messina also adds that he believes X (née Twitter) is now “incredibly vulnerable, and the most competitive teams, like Meta and TikTok, aren’t going to sit idly by if they can carve up Twitter’s former advertising base.”

Meta’s early success with Instagram Threads—over 100 million sign-ups in under a week—has largely been credited to its platform advantage; over a billion people already use Instagram, and porting one’s Instagram identity over to Threads is frictionless. But that’s success in metrics only—quantitative, not qualitative. (In any case, daily active users on Threads have reportedly fallen off.) Threads still doesn’t have a web or desktop app, hasn’t yet rolled out its promised chronological feed, and doesn’t yet support a more open-source protocol that the company has said it will support.

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“As social software has become more probabilistic and personalized, the more important thing is to have ‘shots on goal’ to keep people engaged and prevent churn,” Messina says. “And so Instagram does limited, progressive feature rollouts.”

Masha Liberman, a tech investor who previously built 3D bitmoji for Snapchat, believes that social media is experiencing a “crisis of ideas,” but she says that’s not a new thing. “It’s always been tough to invent something new,” she says. “What’s happening with social media companies is that they want to see themselves as media networks that offer everything inside the app. That’s the competitive advantage right now. And at some point we will probably view some of these things as new formats rather than copycat features.”

Social media as a category is probably overdue for a serious rethink, both in the usability sense and the regulatory sense. The time-suck it has become for some people, its potential mental health harms, and its fire-to-gasoline spread of misinformation are all reasons enough to question it.

It has also, over the past 20-plus years, offered connection, community, entertainment, and access to information unlike anything humanity has ever experienced before. And a new group of apps is now promising a decentralized social media experience instead of the founder-driven model of the past two decades.

But this era of platform identity crises, brand pivots, and frenetic feature reinvention isn’t necessarily in service of users, either. “My experience working at a social media company during turbulent times, especially when there’s a separate app or even a separate page, is that these are huge internal political projects,” Liberman says. “They’re not for users directly, and users sometimes feel this.”

It’s hard not to feel it, to have a persistent sense of déjà vu after another new app feature is announced, or to feel like you never really asked for the thing to begin with. It’s hard not to feel like it’s getting a little late at the social media party, and that there has to be some other reason to stay.

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