Social Apps Are Now a Commodity

Snapchat's redesign shows how communication services are becoming indistinguishable.

The Snapchat logo with a Bitmoji saying "Oh snap!"
Bitstrips / Snap / Ian Bogost / The Atlantic

I am very old. As in, my age begins with a four, a profoundly uncool number for an age to start with. Which is to say, too old to use Snapchat, the image-messaging social-network app. Founded in 2011, it’s most popular among young people, who spurned Facebook and even Instagram for it. Why? For one part, it’s because we olds are on Facebook and even Instagram. But for another part, it’s just because Snapchat is a thing that young people use, and so other young people use it. That’s how the story goes, anyway.

But maybe something simpler is happening. Perhaps there is no magic in any of these apps and services anymore. Facebook and Instagram, Snapchat and GroupMe and Messenger and WhatsApp and all the rest—all are more or less the same. They are commodities for software communication, and choosing between them is more like choosing between brands of shampoo or mayonnaise than it is like choosing a set of features or even a lifestyle.

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It’s not just a myth that Snapchat is for young people. Sixty percent of its users are 25 years old or less, and 37 percent fall between 18 and 24, that revered demographic of marketers. Almost a quarter of the app’s users are under 18. But that’s also changing, as more millennials—or should I say 30-somethings—pick up the app too.

One reason is that older folk have, for years, been using Instagram, which is owned by Facebook (which they’ve also used since college or high school). Facebook has been systematically copying Snapchat’s most popular features, including Stories, ephemeral 24-hour photo montages of a user’s activity. It’s no surprise: Facebook has enormous wealth and leverage, including 2 billion users of its core service and over a billion each for its messaging apps, Messenger and WhatsApp. Instagram boasted some 30 million users when Facebook acquired the company in 2012, and that figure has swelled to 800 million in the five years since. Snapchat is stuck around 170 million users.

Snap, the company that makes Snapchat, has shed more than half its value since peaking just after going public in March of this year. Its current market cap, about $16 billion, is still more than the $3 billion Facebook offered to acquire the company. And Google had reportedly bid up to $30 billion for the company in advance of the IPO. Although Snap denied the rumor, if true it’s a figure the company might regret having spurned to go it alone.

Snap’s attempts to shake its doldrums have been mixed. A year ago, the company introduced a $130 pair of glasses called Snap Spectacles, which took photos for its app. Initial demand was high, but it soon collapsed. Less than half of buyers were still using the gadget a month after purchase. Snap wrote down almost $40 million dollars in excess inventory.

It also paid around $100 million to acquire a Canadian company called Bitstrips, integrating its Bitmoji product, a stylized avatar, into the Snapchat service (it can also be used as a stand-alone stickers in other messaging and social-media apps). Bitmoji gave every Snapchat user a similar but strikingly accurate cartoon image of themselves. And it offered a new platform for advertising, via sponsored avatars—an approach that the company had previously explored with ad-supported photo filters and lenses.

Bitmoji also gave Snapchat a way to represent its users in a standard, physical way. It released Snap Map in June, which allows friends to see one another’s activity on a map.

None of these innovations really helped turn around Snap’s decline. Though still popular among its core audience, its stock dropped 20 percent in November, after the company missed revenue, profit, and user-growth expectations. Its user base had grown by only 3 percent since the previous quarter.

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This week, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel announced a redesign of Snapchat. The app is notoriously unintuitive for the unfamiliar, and the redesign, which Spiegel promised in the wake of dismal Q3 results, hopes to boost adoption by making it easier for new users.

The announcement came in the form of a short video of Spiegel explaining the “new and improved” Snapchat. The video is disorienting—a video of a video shoot, really, a jaunty yellow backdrop displayed as a prop instead, the camera cutting between views of Spiegel and those of a film crew filming Spiegel. “Look at us working hard,” the video’s subtext telegraphs.

Its text is more mysterious. As a nonuser of Snapchat, Spiegel’s promises struck me as so vague and woolly that they might apply to anything whatsoever. He vows to make Snapchat “more personal.” Your friends “aren’t content; they’re relationships,” he opines, rationalizing the redesign’s shift of sponsored posts into their own view, separated from friends. This move, which gets its own post-production textual overlay on either side of Spiegel’s gaunt body, amounts to “separating the social from the media.” All of it makes perfect sense so long as you don’t think about it even for a second.

The changes themselves are straightforward. Snapchat’s default view is the camera. To the left are chats and stories from friends, and to the right those from publishers and sponsors. For the first time, the friends view works as an algorithmic feed rather than a chronological list—like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. When it rolls out over the coming weeks, the new Snapchat will privilege close friends over acquaintances—if indeed your close friends are the ones you send snaps to more often. In that respect, the app will work a lot more like messaging apps like GroupMe, WhatsApp, and Messenger than social-media apps like Instagram or Twitter. In Spiegel’s dressed-up script, that amounts to “organizing Snapchat around your relationships to make it more personal.”

Every other social app intersperses sponsored posts with organic content for visibility, so it’s hard to imagine why anyone would ever choose to look at Snapchat’s sponsored view, where that material is safely sequestered from view. But perhaps the company hopes to take a hit on ad and sponsor-post performance, if not revenue, to demonstrate user growth to the street.

Most notable to me, watching the video, was the incessant refrain that the redesign would inspire its audience to “Express yourself with your friends.” At its start, Spiegel deadpans, Snapchat “made it easier to express yourself by talking with pictures.” The redesign, he promises, will make it easier to find the people you want to express yourself with. The result? “The friends you want to talk to will be there when you want to talk to them.”

As a Snapchat nonuser, it’s easier for me to hold these claims at a distance. But not because they are incredible or stupid or even bad. Rather, because they are so ordinary and humdrum that it seems ridiculous to suggest that they are remarkable. In essence, Snapchat hopes to compete by taking a weird, unique, unseemly product that lures a specific audience partly on account of those reasons, and transforming it into yet another chat app—even if a photo-centric one—that works more or less like any other.

It makes me wonder, what makes someone choose one app over another? Why use Twitter over Facebook, or Instagram over Snapchat, or GroupMe over Messenger? Knowing how bitterly old I am, I ask my kids, teenagers who use Snapchat like most teens do.

“Snapchat still has more features, even given the stuff that Instagram stole from them,” my daughter explains. Her scorn for Instagram, which she also uses, is palpable. Among those features are best friends, which is just what it sounds like, and streaks, a kind of high score for daily posts back and forth with specific Snapchat friends. She has never had a Facebook account and thus doesn’t use Messenger, although she does use GroupMe (which is owned by Microsoft) for group chats.

My son, who is a couple years older, did get Facebook immediately upon eligibility at age 13, although he never uses it anymore. He tells me that most of his friends use Snapchat or GroupMe for ordinary, day-to-day conversation—not just for social preening, as many old people imagine they do. I feel even longer in the tooth when he explains that Messages—the blue-bubble iPhone replacement for texting—is something he hardly ever uses. Except to talk to old people, like his parents. Texts, once the bastion of screen-shocked youth, have already gone the way of email, that dour and grizzled technology of geriatrics.

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People do the things they do. They start because they are convenient, or ready-to-hand, or shared by peers, or momentarily novel. The college students who started using Facebook in the mid-2000s did so because it was new, accessible at universities, and spreading quickly. The parents and friends and grandparents who did so in the years following picked it up because others were doing so. WhatsApp gained popularity in nations where SMS remained expensive, but contacts were still identifiable by telephone number.

There are functional differences between the services. Instagram is made of pictures, but more oriented toward photographic aesthetics than Snapchat, which uses pictures as messages. That’s what Spiegel means by “talking with pictures”; it’s phatic visual communication, as my colleague Rob Meyer puts it. Likewise, Twitter’s constraint, at 140 or 280 characters, makes it different from Facebook. GroupMe’s ease of adding multiple people to a chat separates it from Messenger, or Apple’s Messages.

But even though those differences make a difference, they are also remarkably small differences. And increasingly smaller, as the various services borrow and steal from one another, as Instagram and Snapchat and others have done. Instead of distinctive services with clear value propositions, these apps are becoming commodities. All commodities have real product differentiators—Coke tastes different (ahem, better) than Pepsi; Secret shills deodorants specially formulated for women, while Old Spice dudes them up for men, and so on. But at bottom, the rapport people have for a particular product or service comes down to a hazy affinity developed from discovery, branding, peer adoption, and other accidents of timing and circumstance. Repeated use, not to mention product marketing, reinforces that choice over time.

Snapchat doesn’t make me feel old because it’s so much cooler than Twitter or Messenger, nor because I’m so uncool that I couldn’t possibly grasp it (even if both claims might also be true). Rather, it’s just that Snapchat is the communication service that young people have picked up of late. Telecommunication apps are universal and numerous enough that they support shifting trends and fashions.

It’s no different than drinking Jolt Cola or listening to Fugazi or wearing Z Cavariccis or subscribing to call waiting or keeping the line busy while dialing up to Prodigy—all things that were also cool, at one time. The difference is: Nobody thought of soft drinks or music or apparel—or even telephony and computer services, really—as problems to be atomized into individual companies, let alone public ones, meant to corner the market. They were just commodities differentiated through unique, but temporary, variations in form, function, and packaging. Indeed, the whole reason commodities are commodities is because they are so cheap and easy to produce that competition encourages that differentiation.

It would be a relief if this might yet become the future of computing. No more innovation and disruption and other chest-thumping boasts. No more world-changing deliverance from the stodgy, legacy paradigms of yore. Just communication offerings in the form of software, offered in various styles with nuanced distinction, each doing their part in letting people interact, so that they can get on with life beyond their rectangles.