In 2020 which internet will you be using?
How the latest fight between Facebook and Snapchat is another signal that the internet as we know it is about to change forever.
“The war between Facebook and Snapchat just got real,” Mashable declared Tuesday morning. The reason: Instagram, which Facebook owns, has now replicated a popular Snapchat feature called Stories. Instagram’s feature is called… Stories. Stories, for both Snapchat and now Instagram, is essentially a slideshow that users create and onto which they can add drawings or emojis. Stories are only shared with a user’s followers, and they only last 24 hours.
This looks like a case of simple corporate replication. But it’s about much more than that. It’s about more than ad revenue or the daily engagement time. It’s about which company will ultimately become the internet as we know it.
Instagram is hardly disguising this as anything other than a replication of a popular feature first pioneered by its competitor. As the New York Times reported, Kevin Systrom, the co-founder and chief executive of Instagram “obliquely referred to ‘competitors’ and acknowledged that ‘other companies deserve all the credit’ for popularizing disappearing photos and videos” in an interview with the newspaper.
What’s also obvious is why Instagram has decided to replicate Snapchat so directly. Snapchat is Instagram’s biggest rival, and one that by some estimates, threatens its very existence.
In April, Bloomberg reported that Snapchat’s design, which is focused primarily on users creating content rather than consuming it, “gives the company an edge in a market where Facebook Inc. is building a business quickly.”
Perhaps not quickly enough. Last year an analyst at investment bank Jefferies suggested that Instagram’s revenue could grow by six times between 2016 and 2019. But last week, according to the Times, the same firm “predicted that Snapchat’s growth could detract from Instagram’s advertising momentum by as soon as the fourth quarter this year.” The reason is fairly simple, according to the report. Snapchat’s user base is more active, and creates more content than the average Instagram user.
In the short term (or very short term, if the Jefferies report is correct), that means a loss in advertising revenue. Facebook still dominates its competition when it comes to daily usage — users spend an average of 50 minutes on Facebook properties (including Instagram) every day. But Snapchat is gaining ground. Its users now spend on average anywhere from 25 to 30 minutes on the app, alone, each day.
Those figures are important and they have to keep growing. Without a more engaged user base that creates more content, neither app will survive. And the reason they need to survive is not merely so that they can compete for ad dollars or even eyeballs, but so that they can compete as go-to access points for users to the entire online world.
Facebook and Snapchat don’t just want to be things on the internet; they want to be the internet. And they aren’t alone.
In June, the Atlantic asked: “What if the future of the social web begins in the office?” Slack, the messaging app that acts as a replacement in many offices for the dreaded email chain, has not only started to attract users beyond the office environment, but is now beginning to introduce what it calls “message buttons” within its interface that allow, for example, a user to book a flight or search for a nearby restaurant without ever leaving Slack. “The main point is, Slack doesn’t want you to have to log off — ever,” the Atlantic stated. “This is a familiar mentality online these days.”
The goal for Facebook or Snapchat or Slack — and yes, Google, still — is to ensure that the internet in the near future does not resemble the internet we’ve known for the last 20 years. What was once considered a homepage will now either be Facebook’s news feed or Snapchat’s camera or Slack’s message platform. From there, we’ll get all the information (or anything else) we need, without ever leaving the app.
This is already happening with news. Facebook has lately moved to monopolize information distribution by hooking news organizations into its Instant Articles format, which allows users to read a story within the Facebook app without ever traveling to the news site itself. (The payoff for news sites is a share of the ad revenue — but not all of it.) Similarly, Snapchat has news buttons within the app — stories selected by organizations that will appeal to the app’s largely young base.
And it’s also already happening with live broadcasting. Facebook has introduced Facebook Live to rival Twitter’s Periscope. Snapchat announced Tuesday that it has inked a deal with the NFL to broadcast highlights from games via its Live Stories function for the next two seasons — it already has the same agreement with the NHL, the NBA and the MLB, in some cases to broadcast live games.
The ultimate goal for these platforms is that all the things we like to do online — talking, shopping, watching videos, reading the news — will all happen within an app owned by respective social media companies. As for Chrome, Safari, or Firefox, the browsers we all know and love/hate? Where we’re going, we won’t need browsers. As online usage increasingly happens via a mobile device, they will matter less and less.
In other words, in a few years, we might ask each other questions about the internet that we now ask about each other’s mobile phones: Not whether we are Apple or Android users, but whether we are either a Facebook user or a Snapchat user. Or a Slack user. Or a Google user. Barring major advancements in handheld mobile tech, the hardware question might settle for a while, while the next battle — between access points — takes off.