I was recently watching a since-canceled sitcom on Netflix, when an older character asked in befuddlement: "What's Snapchat?" The joke was meant to play on the common trope of "the olds" being confused by technology. But for me, it had a different effect: It reminded me that Snapchat even existed at all.
My forgetfulness was less a question of my own advancing age than the fact that Snapchat is no longer the relevant cultural force it was just a couple of years ago. The company once synonymous with tech-hungry teens has been usurped in the public consciousness by its competitors. This week, however, Snapchat released its fourth quarter results, and surprisingly, it has managed to staunch the bleeding somewhat. It didn't lose any users, and Wall Street was positively jubilant: The stock popped 20 percent after hours.
But that such modest results prompted such optimism at all is a sign of how far has Snapchat has fallen. There is plenty of blame to lay at the feet of Snapchat's management, and CEO Evan Spiegel. The company rose to prominence by being a sort of persistent connective tissue between users. Teens in particular would spend the day on the app, turning images into a form of messaging to constantly update each other. But the past few years have seen some missteps. For one, a long-promised redesign frustrated and turned off many users. More damning, the same redesign is only now being tested with Android users, who represent the global majority of users. With few new features and an app design that did little to satisfy existing users, let alone draw new ones in, Snapchat seems clearly to blame for its dwindling reputation.
At the same time, it's also worth asking how a social app might find a foothold in a world in which Facebook has 2.3 billion users and Facebook-owned Instagram has just over a billion. The sheer scale and reach of Facebook and its subsidiaries has created a situation in tech where the biggest player in social can effectively squash rivals and stifle innovation if it so chooses.
Consider Snapchat's "story" format. The small, disappearing photos and video clips started with Snapchat and came to define the platform. Stories are why the app first (rightly or wrongly) came to be associated with sexting, but why it also became so popular among young people: It spoke to their preference for ephemerality and a more casual, less polished socializing. But the format was co-opted by Instagram in 2016, and now in 2019, just two and a half years later, Instagram Stories has 500 million daily active users.
What else has been or will be prevented from succeeding, or even coming into being, by Facebook's dominance?
The problem for new tech innovators is that users understandably tend to follow the path of least resistance. In the case of Instagram stories, for example, users were already on the popular platform; when it pivoted to focus more on stories, any desire for that type in interaction could simply be found there. The insidiousness of that power becomes clearer still when one considers that Facebook Messenger now also includes a story feature — Facebook's long reach allows it to continue to copy features and bolster its own products.
As The Washington Post's Shira Ovid points out, when attention and hype continues to coalesce around Facebook's various platforms, ad revenue for challengers like Snapchat is constrained. Snapchat is hemmed in — overwhelmed by Facebook for users and undercut by Facebook for advertising dollars.
This week, Facebook celebrated its 15th anniversary. CEO Mark Zuckerberg marked the date with a post suggesting that criticism of the company was unfair. He argued that "rapid social change creates uncertainty" and that Facebook was part of "a long term trend reshaping society to be more open and accountable over time." It is an optimistic view, and an ironic one; Zuckerberg is not just CEO of a private company that wields an unprecedented amount of influence, he is also unique among CEOs in his degree of control and lack of accountability.
Yes, Facebook is part of a broad social change: The arrival of the internet is both historic and historical, and its implications have been and will continue to be massive. But at present, our digital revolution is overwhelmingly dominated by a few key players with far too much power — ones who can, like a movie villain, simply snap their fingers and make their competitors fade away.