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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.
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.