Social-media innovation is dead

social media apps
Twitter just released Fleets, its version of temporary stories.
  •  Twitter just rolled out its version of temporary stories, joining Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and everyone else. 
  • All of the social-media apps are cannibalizing each others' best features to try and be all things to all people. 
  • But we don't need a dozen 'superapps,' and adding Fleets won't help Twitter solve the problems it is already facing. 
  • Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance journalist and the author of "YouTubers: How YouTube shook up TV and created a new generation of stars", and the upcoming book "TikTok Boom: China, the US and the Superpower Race for Social Media." 
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Crack open the warm champagne: another short-form, impermanent content stream that looks just like every short-form, impermanent content stream has launched. 

The newest iteration comes from Twitter, which rolled out the new Fleets feature to its users on November 17. Despite the fanfare, the reaction to the new function was near-universal apathy. The reason is simple: we've already seen exactly the same kind of content before, on every other app we use on a daily basis.

Fleets is Twitter's version of LinkedIn Stories, which launched worldwide last month. LinkedIn Stories is that social network's version of YouTube Stories, which launched in 2017. YouTube Stories was its version of WhatsApp Statuses and Facebook Stories, which popped up earlier in 2017, after we were given Instagram Stories, which rolled out in August 2016, which in turn was Instagram's version of Snapchat Stories. I could go on, but you get the idea. Everything is the same now.

All the apps are copying each other

Social media is, in many ways, a mature marketplace. Some of the longest-running apps and services have been around for more than 15 years now, and have an audience of millions. 

The Facebook family of apps and websites, including Facebook itself, WhatsApp, and Instagram, dominate our lives, and they're starting to share more features between them. The cross-pollination has also bled out into the rest of the social-media market, with companies increasingly reticent to do anything other than cannibalize the best features of their competitors in order to eke out a few more minutes of engagement with largely dissatisfied users.

It's for that reason that we have TikTok-like formats appearing on platforms as varied as YouTube — which hasn't been a home to short-form video content since it increased the maximum length of a video to 15 minutes in 2010 — and LinkedIn, whose listless pages of suited businesspeople is about as far away from the young, vibrant userbase of TikTok as you can get. 

It's also an explanation for why Instagram appears to have ripped off the idea wholesale for its Reels function — just as it tried to muscle in on YouTube's territory by offering longer form content through its failed IGTV experiment in June 2018.

In short, platforms have become so bloated that they feel they need to be all things to all people, worried that if they don't provide a place for people to upload every element they could possibly want, they risk falling behind the race to corner the market. In reality, all they're doing is diluting their offering.

We don't need every app to be a superapp

The goal of all this crushing sameness may be to mimic the concept of the superapp, which brings multiple disparate features under the same single app umbrella. Superapps have become popular in China, from where many Silicon Valley-based social-media companies are taking their cues. But Chinese superapps like WeChat don't simply borrow relatively innocuous features from their competitors; they instead try to bring in different elements of everyday life, such as payments, chat functionality, and social connections, into the same thing. 

Adding e-commerce to a chat app isn't in the same ballpark as offering the same multi-panel disappearing story feature seen in every other app. All it leads to is a reduplication of content — as content creator Hank Green tweeted, Fleets is "another place to repost my TikToks." 

Democratic Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who has proven herself adept at using social platforms to drive political engagement,  also didn't see the point: "I use Twitter to get away from IG stories, not have it follow me around on every platform reminding me that I don't have makeup on."

While Facebook and LinkedIn struggle to replenish their audience, Snapchat — which has often been mocked for its sometimes precarious future, and has had its obituary written many times over — continues to survive with a loyal userbase because it offers something different than everyone else. 

(That's not to say that Snapchat hasn't been tempted a few times to try and ape its competitors: Snap Originals borrowed its name and concept of getting established TV and movie stars to produce professional broadcast content for the platform from YouTube's own flop-filled slate of shows.)

TikTok has become the app of 2020 because it doesn't hew to the same rules as everyone else. It's offered something new, which doesn't demand the exact same design and layout as every other app. It remains laser-focused on keeping the same standards that have made it successful, and not trying to expand its offering to users. The same approach has allowed Snapchat to remain popular among its fickle, largely teenage audience too.

Fleets won't help Twitter

What's most concerning about the rollout of Fleets on Twitter is that it has come at the expense of more meaningful change. For years users have complained about targeted harassment, have pleaded for the ability to edit their tweets, and have asked for more accountability for what people post on the platform. 

With Fleets, Twitter is giving people the opportunity to make their messages disappear, offering bad actors the ability to launch campaigns of harassment and hide their tracks. 

Researchers have already identified a loophole that would allow people who are ordinarily blocked to interact with those they've been shut off from through Fleets via direct messaging, and a terrorism researcher has also expressed his concerns that the spread of extremist content could be easier through Fleets, which appear to be largely unmoderated.

By trying to become more like every other social app, Twitter has not only overlooked the already-present issues on its platform, but has also introduced new issues at the expense of spending time and effort to try and solve the existing problems. And user experience is all the poorer because of it.

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