Instagram Reels. YouTube Shorts. Snapchat Spotlight. At some point, every social media platform will become TikTok.
Unless you haven't been on the Internet in a while, you'll know that social media companies are promoting their "TikTok" equivalents like there's no tomorrow. You can tell; Instagram Reels has been populated with videos that seem to say: "I heard people only check Reels now, so here's a picture as a video." However, Instagram's sole purpose when it was created was being a platform for posting photos. YouTube’s new YouTube Shorts at least make sense for a video-sharing website — even though Shorts have really just been filled with TikTok re-uploads. Even Reddit has started implementing TikTok-like videos, where just watching one video will lead you into an infinite rabbit hole of videos. Why are we forcing these perfectly good social media platforms to be TikTok, when they already have their own purposes to fulfill? Why are we forcing them to be anything other than what they are?
In earlier days of the Internet, websites each catered to a niche group of users: MySpace for entertainment; Tumblr for art, writing, and mindless blogging; VSCO for romantics; Twitter for politics; Reddit for memes; Vines for short video memes, etc. Even if you couldn't find your community there, you could always subscribe to blogs, or start up your own and gain a little cult following.
Today, it is difficult for anyone to get attention on anything but “mainstream” social media. Even if you started a social media platform of your own, you'd probably have to promote it on existing social media! It's a feedback loop: people go to a social platform because it connects them to a community, however niche the community may be. Then, as more users flock to the platform, the network of users gets bigger and bigger. To get the most attention, public figures and creators will go to the most popular social network, which will give them the most reach. And more people will go to those platforms because "everyone else is on it," including friends and celebrities. So, social media will continue to become more concentrated: Facebook acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp; Google acquiring YouTube; and even TikTok can be seen as a derivative of Vine.
Every social media company right now knows how incredibly popular TikTok is and feels threatened by its success. Instead of starting from the ground up, they're trying to copy TikTok's best features to make TikTok useless. But they haven't been very successful beyond being inferior derivatives, and they need to realize it. TikTok is good enough to stand on its own without being bought out or out-competed by other companies. Instead of trying to take over every other tech company, Meta, YouTube, and Snapchat should focus on doing what they do best or figuring out what they can offer that TikTok can't.
So how do we make these companies realize that they can't continue to copy TikTok? I'd say to think of a similar problem: urbanization.
Urbanization, at its simplest, is when cities become larger, more industrial, and have to accommodate more people. When a city becomes more successful, more people will go and live there. With more people, it's more likely for unknown actors and start-ups to become successful celebrities and businesses. With more success, people will want to go to absorb some of that success — as well as the resources and environment that contributed to previous successes. And that's how you get sprawling metropolises like New York City and San Francisco.
But we can't have every single human being live in NYC. Besides the fact that it's not physically possible and would drive up housing prices beyond the exorbitant prices there already are, most people can't afford to move there, and we still need businesses to provide to populations in suburban and rural areas. So what happens?
Localization happens. Instead of trying and failing to offer what big cities can, small cities appeal using their own unique features. They promote their natural landscapes, their peacefulness, their local style of cooking, the quirks of their community, etc. They also promote other things that come with the natural boundaries of states and cities, like their politics, the success, or types, of schools in their area, and their natural landscapes and weather. Pittsburgh, for one, is known for its manufacturing and steel history, its many, many bridges, and for having a bunch of colleges in the area — Carnegie Mellon of course being one. (It's also known for having gloomy weather nearly year-round — or maybe that's just how I feel, coming from California, where we have sunny days for upwards of 200 out of 365 days of the year.)
I digress. In any case, this is exactly what we need in social media: appeal to smaller communities. Instead of trying to get every single human being using one social media platform, we should encourage small platforms to appeal to subsets of the population. Let SMS do the job of reaching everyone instead.
However, social media definitely faces a problem that cities do not: social media can basically reach everyone with Internet access. At least people have to be within commuting distance of a big city to partake in its culture — leading those further away to just be content with their small city life and develop small city culture. However, with the Internet, the barrier of physical distance is no longer there, making it harder for small social media platforms to thrive. Tech companies are also notoriously anti-competitive. Lawsuits have been filed alleging how tech companies promote their own products over those of competitors. (Remember that because of the popularity of mainstream social media, tech companies still need to promote their products on rival platforms. For example, Facebook/Meta has a YouTube account, YouTube has a Facebook and Instagram account, small search engines like Ecosia also post ads on bigger search engines like Google.)
So, it's unlikely that anything will change soon. However, seeing the popularity of BeReal, a small social media startup that's still visibly buggy and not very secure, I think there's hope for change. BeReal succeeds where others fail: Content creation is quick, reliable, and low effort. BeReal also doesn't really require a large social network for people to be attracted to it — the main issue for most small social media companies — because BeReal's premise is that users will only add their "real friends," not just acquaintances they met a couple of times. This approach results in a small but consistent user base, many of whom (like me) don't post on other social media networks due to the effort needed to curate an account, and also just due to introversion. However, even BeReal is being co-opted by larger social media companies, such as Snapchat, which has rolling a BeReal-esque dual camera feature.
Still, if BeReal sticks around, I think there's real promise for similar small social media platforms to thrive. People have tried and failed many, many times to start a social media revolution, but if social media platforms continue to become more and more similar to each other, consumers may simply ditch the biggest platforms entirely and find community elsewhere.
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