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Stories and the Convergence of Social Media

Written by Callum McCahon - Aug 29 2016
When Instagram unveiled Stories a few weeks ago, the instant reaction was one of shock and outrage — it was obvious that they had ripped off this feature from Snapchat…

…and they did. But that misses the point. This move legitimises the story as the way of consuming social content in 2016.

Instagram founder Kevin Systrom gave a fantastic quote in an interview with The Verge:

“Just like when Facebook invented the [News] Feed, and every social product was like, ‘That’s an innovation, how do we adapt that to our network?’ You’re going to see stories pop up in other networks over time, because it’s one of the best ways to show visual information in chronological order.”
Facebook invented the news feed. Others followed because, at the time, this was the best way to serve users content that was relevant to their interests.

Snapchat invented stories and others will follow because this is a fundamentally brilliant way of consuming content — it’s storytelling at its very finest.

It’s not so much that Instagram copied Snapchat. Rather, they are adapting to how people like to communicate, create, and consume content in 2016. Strategically, it’s a very smart move.

However as the title of this article alludes to, I believe what we are seeing is symbolic of a much wider shift in social media.

Facebook is now twelve years old. Twitter just turned ten. Instagram has been around for six years, and Snapchat launched five years ago.

Every key social platform has now been around for over 5 years.

What does this mean? It means the platforms are entering the maturity stage. Facebook have been there for quite a while — but now the others are there too.

Using Snapchat as an example, let’s trace back the (grossly oversimplified) journey of a typical social platform.
  • Differentiate. Launch with a clear point of difference from the current offering. (Ephemeral messaging)
  • Grow. Become known for that niche, and build a core user base. (Teenagers)
  • Iterate. Build new features that keep that core audience engaged. (Stories, Discover)
  • Diversify. Build features that attract those beyond your niche. (Memories)
In the early stages of a social media platform (or indeed any startup), differentiation is the most important thing. You must offer something unique to draw people in.

But differentiation becomes insignificant once you have that core audience who are loyal to your platform. So… you move through the stages until you reach Stage 4 — diversification.

Once you’ve hit saturation point with your target audience, you need to increase your appeal beyond your niche — otherwise you stop growing.

This is never good. Twitter’s decline over the last two years proves that — if you stop growing, people stop using your platform, leading to a decline in advertising revenue, and a decline in investor confidence. Not pretty.

And right now, in 2016, all the major social platforms are in stage 4. So we start to see something very interesting:

Convergence.

Every social platform becomes extremely similar in terms of the tools they offer, because every social platform is broadly attempting to achieve the same end — to become the place to communicate, create, and consume content.

To steal a nugget from Benedict Evans..

benedict evans twitter

Specialist social platforms turn into all rounders as they grow, rather than they other way round.

The difference with social media as opposed to the broader tech landscape is the importance of context. The tools offered by each platform become extremely similar; yet the context through which you utilise these tools remains different — a relic of the past.

Snapchat is the platform where spontaneity dominates, because ephemeral messaging fostered this context. This context remains the same despite Snapchat moving away from the ephemeral niche. We use the same tools in different ways — because platforms will always be bound to their initial context.

What we are seeing at the moment is convergence. All the social platforms are replicating each other in terms of tools and features — because they want to remain relevant to as many people as possible. And that’s only a good thing for us, the users — we get more tools to create, consume, and communicate on the platforms we prefer.