In a world where every app update seems to come with a new and uncalled for copycat feature (Facebook stories, anyone?), are we heading towards social media oblivion?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and it’s reasonably common to think life was simpler a few years ago.

Remember 2014? Not only was our country still in the European Union, but you could look at your iPhone 4S screen without the crippling sense of confusion that comes with the overwhelming choice facing us now.

Back then, if you wanted to see perfectly filtered photos of dinners, you went straight to Instagram. If you wanted to snoop on relationship statuses: Facebook. Rubbish videos of nights out and cocktails: Snapchat. That was it, really. Messenger, WhatsApp and Twitter were less popular, serving their own purposes and little else.

Flash forward to 2017 and oh how the world has changed. Not only are we living in a terrifying era of political instability, our social media usage has drastically changed (admittedly, these aren’t of equal significance). If we have something to share, we can now choose from a variety of platforms, each with only slight differences.

Apps that previously served very distinct functions are starting to look more similar

Most people have a range of social media accounts for different audiences and tailor what they share accordingly. For example, people tend to use Facebook to connect with everyone they’ve ever met. It’s the first social network most share with new acquaintances, leading to some ‘friends’ on there that we might have no desire to speak to ever again. The amount of people you’re connected to and the relative permanence of Facebook means users tend to be more careful about what they put up on there.

You might not want your old piano teacher to see you dancing wildly in a grimy club while throwing a gin and tonic around, but it’s probably okay to let her and all your other friends know when you get a new job. But Snapchat? That tends to be for trusted friends, or least people of a similar age. Why not show them how much fun you had at Tuesday Club? Chances are they’ll be posting a similar thing.

These days, people are engaging more and more with social media; Facebook recently reached two billion users, an unprecedented reach for a social networking site.

Social networking companies, the majority of which are now owned by Facebook, are anxious to retain their user base as well as recruit more users in an increasingly competitive market.

Slowly but surely, apps that previously served very distinct functions are starting to look more similar, with some features being mirrored across several platforms. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Tumblr now all have a instant messaging feature just like WhatsApp. Facebook and Instagram now both have temporary photo sharing and story features that were once unique to Snapchat. The photo filters that made Instagram popular are now being rolled out across most apps with photo functions.

With such tiny differences between apps, it’s difficult to judge exactly which one is best suited to particular types of media. This has resulted in an endless copycat cycle – with every app update bringing with it familiar features from another social media platform.

So what next? It’s possible that some apps may realise that they are losing what made them special in the first place and minimising their unique selling point.

Due to the fact that they’re all owned by the same company, we might even see the creation of a Frankenstein-esque ‘Facesnapstagram’

In 2016, there were reports that Twitter was considering extending its famous 140-character limit for a tweet to 10,000. The subsequent outrage (why not just post a long status on Facebook?) encouraged the company to reconsider and to stick with what was already working.

In this vein, maybe we could see a return to more pared-down apps doing what they’re originally meant to rather than trying to do everything at once. However, evidence would suggest that we’re equally likely to see more obsessive mimicry between the major social media apps, with each apparently trying everything at once to mirror the success of their competitors. It’s difficult to predict what will come next (phone calls on Snapchat? Boomerangs on WhatsApp?) but if the trend continues we may be faced with several indistinguishable apps on our phones.

Due to the fact that they’re all owned by the same company, we might even see the creation of a Frankenstein-esque ‘Facesnapstagram’ app which allows you to access and share everything in one combined place.

Interestingly, this would take us back to the days of 2008 and 2009, where sites like Myspace and Bebo would be used for posting everything – from videos to blog posts. Back then there was very little dilly-dallying between different platforms and functions. Perhaps the future of apps may complete the cycle, combining all our social networks into one ‘super-app’, with every feature you might need in one place.

As satisfyingly tidy an idea that is, it’s possible that our social media usage has become too advanced for such a solution. In the era of Netflix, Deliveroo and internet shopping, people are used to picking and choosing. From TV shows to take-aways, we like to have an array of options in front of us, and the freedom to select whatever we want.

In our minds, at least, social media apps, even those with the exact same functions and features, are all subtly different – and being able to choose between them all is something that most people find appealing. No one really knows why it’s cool to share a story on Snapchat, but not on Facebook or Messenger, or why it would be weird to post only selfies and cat pictures on Facebook, but this is perfectly acceptable on Instagram. Many of us seem to have accepted these vague distinctions as fact – perhaps because we enjoy the process of making choices and weighing up our options. No matter how much these various social media apps mimic one another, it is likely that we will still strive to see the distinctions between them rather than their similarities.

Although a ‘Facestapstagram’ style super-app might in theory be more convenient, people in this day and age are likely to be drawn towards more choice rather than less.

Words by Rebecca Lally
Image credit: Pixelkult (Pixabay)

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