I spent over seven years writing everything from pitch decks to in-app copy, all to differentiate Snapchat from other social media apps. The other day I got a notification telling me to wish the birthday of my nemesis. Most people would probably read this as normal, or even expected. But I saw it for what it was: the death knell of a social media site that had outlived its usefulness.
Snap’s goal was to become a more ethical and healthier social media platform from its very beginning. Snap wanted to be a platform where users were supported and not burdened by ads. I told them that real-life friends were more important than followers or acquaintances, and that chronologically consuming moments (like you would in the real world) was better than an algorithm. I told new employees that we would never use the growth hacking tactics of Facebook and Twitter.
Snap’s push notifications, which demand the smallest of interactions, were the reason I first joined Snapchat. This notification did not indicate the imminent demise of Snap’s revenue streams. It could take years for them to diminish. Instead, it indicated its relevance to users who use it daily. When you have to beg your users to simply open an app something isn’t working.
I am all too familiar with this cycle
This story isn’t just about Snap. This is a pattern all social media apps are doomed repeat – to move away from their original promise of being a place where you can connect with family and friends, and toward something completely different. How can social media apps seem to be destined to disappoint and manipulate us?
After growing up with AIM and Myspace and going to college using Facebook, I have seen dozens of social media companies rise and fall in my role as a journalist at The Insider, and The Verge. The platforms began with young founders announcing that , if you don’t pay for the product , you yourself are the product . They grin and say, “We are going to do things different around here!”
The founders begin to realize, one-by-one, that something is not quite right with the social media business. The founders made their apps for free in order to grow their community. But they soon realized that there was no going back. The only way to move forward was to allow the app to grow unrestrained, regardless of how different it had to be.
Unlike most other businesses on Earth that live and die by their customers’ demands, social media services are caught trying to satisfy both their users and the people actually paying for it all: investors and advertisers.
These groups have dramatically different needs. Users want the original purpose of the platform — whether it’s ephemeral messages, photos or other features. Unexpected, energetic spaces for connecting with friends in new ways. These use cases will inevitably reach a limit. You are limited to a certain number of photos. There are only so many people you can message. This is a problem for advertisers and investors. Each social network must find a way to encourage users to send yet anotherphoto or introduce a new feature to encourage them to do so. More users, more ads, and more money for investors.
In the past, when I wrote about Snapchat Stories’ launch for I saw it as an evolution to Snap’s core mechanism: ephemeral messages. Over time, I began to see it as an evolution of an app designed and built for message into an app that is used for broadcasting, like other social media. When I read that article I wrote so many years ago, I realized that it was clear that Stories would include ads at some point. Once the spigot of ads was turned on, it was official that the cycle had begun.
There are trade-offs when a business submits to digital marketing. Users are put on the back burner.
Instagram users shout into the void, “We want to see the chronological feed again!” Instagram’s CEO said, “Here are Reels and Shopping,” on the lookout for revenue streams.
Tweeters on Twitter chant “Freedom of Speech!” Twitter’s CEO said, “But then sponsored hashtags wouldn’t be safe.”
Tumblr users blasted their blogs to the skies with “We want show our kinky sides!” Yahoo’s overlords said, “Sorry we can’t.” It’s frightening the advertisers!
The slippery, slow journey towards ever greater misalignment of user and product continues. We’re told that even when things are going well, life must continue to grow. You’ll see more ads in your feed forever.
We said “It wouldn’t happen to me”, but then it happened.
The product developmentof the social media apps today has progressed to the point that I am not sure if you can call them social any longer — at least, not the way we used to know it.
Each of them seems to have discovered on their own that shortform videos by strangers are more engaging than posts and messages made by friends, which comprised traditional social media. It’s the carcinization, a natural outcome of feeds that are based solely on engagement and popularity.
One day, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when this switch was flipped. The final solution to gaining more time from users is to move away from the news, from followers and from real friends. This means moving away from shortform videos, which are highly addictive, but also appear to calm a chaotic brain.
I’m here because of the Japanese frogs videos that I see on TikTok. They are not a substitute for social media, which is to keep in touch with family and friends.
“Everything was an endless feed instead of acknowledging friend content may only be 10 minutes a day,” says Antoine Martin. He is the co-founder Zenly a delightful location sharing app that Snap purchased in 2017 and shuttered recently, and amo a forthcoming social application. You just have to find the business model that will fulfill it!
Inventing a business model later doesn’t work when the implicit agreement with investors is that they will get 100x their investment or lose it.
I’ve spent a lot of time blaming founders for changing their products at the whims of advertisers, but to any social platform’s credit, the users do indeed do it to themselves .
We’re also on a quest for growth in our eternal quest for social approval. We are easily swayed by convenient features, like Stories, that cater to advertisers and prioritize broadcasting rather than simply communicating. It feels good to add new friends! We add more and more friends — because it feels good!
Rob Horning , a technology writer, wrote me an email saying that “people want be a product!” Being a product in our society is coded for success… People don’t like to be misled or exploited, which is difficult to avoid when it comes to ad supported media. Apps had changed but users had too, and the early social media felt left out again.
Social media is a growing phenomenon, but people refuse to accept that they are also responsible.
We only look back later and remember how much fun it used to be. Whether it was Instagram’s first filters, Facebook wall posts, Snapchat selfie messages, Twitter’s boring text posts or Twitter’s stale text posts. But would we ever go back?
These nostalgic sentiments, which I have seen on social media, are always tinged with denial. They refuse to accept that they are also responsible for the rise of social media and the demise of apps such as the intimate, beautiful Path.
Snap knew that this fate would come to us and our users one day. Our creative design team came up with ways to break the cycle. From ephemeral, one-time messages that could not be reread, to Stories that couldn’t be liked to making it (deliberately!) difficult to add a new friend.
When you are aiming for an IPO there is no excuse to keep things small. The “frictions”, one by one, are reduced, while the focus of research and development is shifted to content rather than messaging. And lo and behold! Growth comes.
Since leaving the world of social media and joining The Browser Company several months ago, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my past as a social media user, critic , marketer, designer, and adviser. Maybe I had to be outside to truly look in — a weird ego check for someone who thought they knew everything about this stuff.
Since the emergence of new social platforms, such as Mastodon and Locket, and more intimate apps like BeReal and Locket, I have noticed a shift in how startups approach social media, and even their traditional startup path. Facebook used to do this, but these apps aren’t trying to replicate the whole college experience. They are trying to create new experiences that meet our needs of today .
What if this is a good thing? Maybe now that costs for creating a messaging or feed app have plummeted and Big Tech has moved on to other topics there is a vacuum again for social. We’ve seen over the years that a more open space for innovation is usually the winner… eventually. It may take 30 years for to catch up with new inventors, but they will eventually realize their true customers.
I wonder if is different at the beginning, end, and every new beginning of social things. I wonder if social technologies can be built bravely enough to treat users like customers. You could also find a way to monetize deep engagement on the newest platforms like Substack or Patreon. Julie Young told me that monetizing creator-audience transaction directly was a higher [average revenue for each user] endeavor than advertising.
Can these newcomers find the means to start without the same promises?
I believe that people will pay for products which serve their needs at an earlier stage or on a smaller scale. These products are rarely built, because investors don’t want to invest in “small scale social”, which better represents our IRL social networks. It’s a much less profitable business model than Mark Zuckerberg created all those years ago.
We pay for all types of software, including dating and money management apps as well as streaming and to-do app. We pay for avocados, $5 cappuccinos, and creators. Even ISPs used to charge us for email! People would surely be willing to pay a few dollars per month for software which facilitates their most important relationships. Every day, the cost of sending texts, pictures, and videos – which are at the core of social media – gets cheaper.
Advertisements can be tempting, but they may not always deliver on their promises. Advertisers will pay more than the actual users for a product. Facebook makes 200 dollars per year in ad revenue from each American user. But how many of these users would pay 15 dollars / month for Facebook? According to a study not many.
The contract was signed the day the companies were funded. It stated that either the company would grow “to the moon” or the investment would be a failure. Founders promise that they will monetize stickers and filters, cosmetics, etc. But when user numbers become the key to an IPO or acquisition, it is almost always ads. They are the solution to scaling your business up to its exact value.
It’s one the most successful business models ever.