In August, there was uproar in the social media world over Instagram’s new ‘story’ feature. Not because it was unusable, not because it was amazing – but because it replicated what Snapchat had been doing since October 2013. For the unfamiliar, stories allow you to chain together images into a slideshow, showcasing your day, month, year or whatever you want.
According to reports, Instagram stories have seen solid success, but I suspect – rather like Facebook’s multiple attempts to introduce ephemeral messaging (i.e. time-limited, again like Snapchat) the social networks are all trying to provide users with extra value and struggling to innovate. Although Facebook might be seen as the ‘grandpa’ of the social networks today, it has a major innovation trump card in its ownership of VR headset Oculus Rift.
But it does raise the question – will the convergence of functions across social media networks render them all identical and indistinguishable in time? After all, whether you’re a Facebook messenger or a WhatsApp-er (or both), a Flickr addict or a top Instagrammer, a Snapchat fiend or a member of the Twitterati, a lot of the networks seem to do the same thing.
However, for many people, it’s about the community and spirit of the network, and the basic function of it (picture sharing, social events, instant updates) rather than the tweaks and twiddles that are introduced along the way. Sure, there are things we’d love the networks to do (LinkedIn, please introduce post scheduling ASAP) but most people generally understand what the major networks do and know people on there.
After all, almost by definition, you probably wouldn’t join a social network where you didn’t know anyone. But at the same time, function does to some extent determine form: the ephemeral nature of Snapchat makes it a young, quick-fire social network, whereas the slow-moving professional orientation of LinkedIn attracts a smart, older audience. You don’t see many people posting photos of their Friday night drinks on LinkedIn – and the same is true for Flickr, despite it being an image-based network. Flickr is more aimed at ‘artsy’ or ‘serious enthusiast’ photographers, with people showcasing their best work there.
Yet, in theory, you could put your Friday night photos on either LinkedIn or Flickr, or almost any network. Social networks develop character partially based on their function and partially based on how people use them.
It’s a strange concept but also an interesting one – and one we’ve seen historically as well. Myspace prolonged its lifespan* by a few years by focusing more on the music community, when – in all honesty – its’ functionality was more suited to being a generalist network than a musical one; more Facebook than SoundCloud. But whether the decision to be music-focused was user- or brand-determined, it certainly worked. It also took some time for Snapchat to be known as being ‘not just for nudes’, but this was certainly a combination of brand activity and user activity.
This answers our main question in a way – whilst social networks have their own communities, their own visual identities and user experiences, their functions are all reasonably similar and are growing more similar. However, the people using them will continue to subvert the function and purpose of the social networks, in much the same way as people use, misuse and adapt all the other tools we come across today.
This isn’t new – people have subverted tools and environments since man first adorned the walls of caves with paintings of his prey. But I’m sure that, like primeval man, we’ll certainly see a few beasts die out in the social networks before we move onto our next stage of development.
* We’re aware that Myspace still exists, but given that it was purchased in 2005 by News International for $580m, and then by Specific Media and Justin Timberlake for $35m in 2011, the nails are in the coffin.