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There Are No New Social Networks

There’s the big five — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat — and then a series of fringe social media services unable to break through with invention. Why are we stuck in a cycle of sameness?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Your iPhone used to be a digital laboratory — a place for experiments in the form of apps. Try this, sure. Download that, why not? Somewhere along the line, that interest in dabbling wore off. Being convinced to try a new app became a monumental feat, and the folder hit hardest by this — the one that now holds the same four to five apps and never grows — was social.

There can be new apps, sure — if someone tells me there’s a new Google Drive–related app, I’m in. Or something (anything) for improved photo storage, yes. But joining another social network is a request I cannot entertain. The excitement over the new social media network Mastodon is fun — I’ve enjoyed reading about the open source Twitter alternative, but then I think … remember how much we all loved Peach?

According to a 2017 Pew report, more and more adults are using social networks, and though user growth is comparatively slowing for major social networks, it’s still growing. The report listed the five most popular social networks as Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and … LinkedIn. These are the same platforms it listed in 2016. (The fact that Snapchat is missing should come as no surprise, given this is a survey of, ahem, adults.) And Pew found that these numbers grew for the networks between 2012 and 2014.

“I think what you’re seeing is that general purpose social networks are dominated by Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and others, and that cracking into these market share leaders is a tall order for anyone,” Gartner analyst Brian Blau told me via email. “There is also a trend that smartphone users are not downloading as many apps today as they did in the early days of mobile technology. That means any new app has a significant challenge to get exposure, users, and loyalty.”

The inclination to download every new social app has dwindled significantly — things like storage space, signing up for yet another network, and terrible App Store discoverability are reason enough to forgo the latest attempt at Snapchat-esque ubiquity.

The latest attempt is Wuu, a Snapchat-like app I first saw advertised on Instagram. (Know your audience, I guess.) Wuu was created by Paul Budnitz, the same mind behind Ello. It’s still around, but pivoted into a “creators network” instead of an alternative to major social platforms. Within days of Wuu grabbing a few headlines, we were also talking about Mastodon. Oh yeah, and we met Apple’s video app, Clips. Before that there was the hype over Gab. (Ugh.) And again, Peach. Remember Vine? (RIP.)

I don’t begrudge anyone the excitement of a new social app. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that something, anything different and unexpected could upend what’s become an increasingly homogenous landscape. And there was a period of time when disruptors had a shot at changing what the world of social platforms looked like — a few of them managed to do it, in fact. Hipstamatic and Instagram (admittedly, more one than the other) managed to push us into singular, image-based feeds, eschewing status updates and chat boxes for retro-ified photos. Before that, Twitter introduced real-time communication and news. (And eggs, and trolls, and a new destination for digital hate crime, etc.) Snapchat, of course, completely destroyed social media sameness with ephemeral messaging and disappearing photos, not to mention a mobile-only user interface that looked nothing like the design to which we’ve become acclimated.

At some point, though, the “Is it an app or a feature?” question became more pressing. Attempts to evolve platforms, like Google+, offered too much of the same (just slightly different, or in many cases, slightly nicer). Others, like Vine or Peach, added new, fun features that mainstays like Facebook and Twitter didn’t have — but those features were easy to appropriate into their own systems. (Boomerang from Instagram, for example, lacks the casualness of Vine, but certainly took a stab at its functionality.)

Going niche is a risk for any social media platform — but it feels like the only option most developers have now. Then again, take the emoji-only social network the tech media spent a day proselytizing. It turned out to be a joke and never actually launched. The List app — wherein you could compose and publish lists — befell a similar fate: Propped up by its famous founder, B.J. Novak, it captured our attention for a handful of weeks — it was not a joke, and it’s still around, but it’s certainly not disrupting how we use social media. Beme (propped up by a less famous founder, Casey Neistat) was a confusing if compelling idea that slid down the App Store charts before shuttering last November. And yet the cautious excitement around these products captures our desperation for something else.

In their wake is a sea of sameness. Facebook bought Instagram, both of which are swiftly morphing into Snapchat, easily the most inventive (if confusing) thing that’s happening to social media. Twitter and Facebook trade features, morphing into one another less conspicuously but doing exactly that nonetheless. Outliers like Tumblr and (to a lesser degree) Yik Yak can hold their own, but haven’t managed to reinvent how we communicate en masse. The emergence of something new feels almost impossible, and worse yet, it feels like the methods these social networks use may become identical. But it’s not all bleak.

“Social apps are now focused on messaging, and certainly it’s a vibrant area of innovation and advancement,” Blau told me. “So I wouldn’t say that all social apps are stagnating.” Maybe the copycat cycle will just push us away from public-facing social apps altogether and into private messaging, an arguably more inventive (and in some cases, nicer) space. It seems that the only time someone is able to create a new social network, it’s by accident. Venmo is not a social app — at least, it wasn’t intended to be. The PayPal-owned payment system was launched as a dead simple way to share money, complete with a few lighthearted features like emoji and a real-time feed of users’ transactions. This feed ultimately became a sort of social network within the app: It fuels FOMO, forces us to consider the financial side of dating, and even acts as a window into modern drug culture.

Venmo didn’t set out to be a better Twitter or a Facebook alternative; it took a fact of daily life that wasn’t all that interesting and certainly not very “social,” and created new digital communication behaviors. It was accidentally inventive.

“It’s harder for apps to break into the mainstream now, especially when it comes to social,” comScore’s Adam Lella told me via email — but he also pointed me to research the company had done about social app behavior. True, older users — 35 and older — were narrower in their social media use to the tried and true networks. Younger users, though, were still downloading new apps, and Snapchat’s ability to rise through the ranks and break into the top of the App Store was largely fueled by this. That willingness to try new apps, however, doesn’t always translate to sticking with them.

It’s also worth noting that just last year, comScore also compiled an infographic Lella shared with me asking if we’ve reached “peak app,” which found that people are downloading fewer apps than ever, and that our smartphone time is being spent using our favorite ones. And those are exactly what you think they are — the big names.

Product Hunt’s social editor and writer, Niv Dror, says there’s something else keeping this market stagnant. “Once an app becomes significant enough to pose a threat to the big players, they either get acquired or significantly handicapped by a competitive feature or restricted access,” he told me via email. He cites Meerkat, a huge 2015 hit I’d nearly forgotten about, which was one of the originating apps in the now-ubiquitous livestreaming trend. Dror worked at Meerkat until the app was forced to shutter. “On my second day working at Meerkat, Twitter decided to cut off our access to the social graph (since they acquired Periscope), which really hurt us in the long run.”

The bigger networks sometimes prevent the rise of smaller services. But the answer cannot be to just stop creating new social apps. “While I don’t want to discourage people from working on new things … It seems like quite an audacious goal at this point to start as a general use social platform and say you’re gonna be the next Twitter or Facebook,” says Dror. “An app based on audience simply can’t compete from that approach. Instead, Chris Dixon’s ‘Come for the tool, stay for the network’ seems like a better approach. Instagram was a tool for putting filters on photos, that attracted the use case which developed into the network. Houseparty is a tool for group FaceTime. Snapchat was a tool for sending disappearing messages. Eventually it grew into a network, which made their Stories feature work, but it wouldn’t have worked if they started with Stories.”

Hopefully some happy accidents, addictive “tools,” and innovation in the face of sameness will push us into a new social internet. Until then, let’s endure the mild strain over switching from Snapchat to Instagram Stories, and enjoy our three weeks with the next Peach.