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Over the past few years, I’ve written extensively about Facebook’s brazen business tactics. For a company that used to be among the most inspiring in the world, setting a precedent for what social media could truly amount to in a world that was increasingly more connected, the company is a far cry from what it used to be, even if you set aside the horror stories of its early founder days.
Beginning life as a dorm room project by Harvard college student Mark Zuckerberg, the site rapidly grew to encompass more than just the names and faces of Harvard attendees. Soon, it would be the world’s biggest social media site, where people from around the globe would gather to write on ‘Walls,’ shares photos of friends and family, write personal updates and blog-like notes, and even play flash-based games.
While things were a bit clunky at first, the platform had a distinct voice and identity. From its branding to its user experience and eventual introduction of the iconic ‘News Feed,’ the company was truly a step above. However, since day one, there was a problem: Mark Zuckerberg, the chief co-founder of the platform and its CEO, was extremely paranoid of competition.
Like most big firms in Silicon Valley, Facebook under Zuckerberg has bought plenty of smaller companies to assimilate them into the Facebook family of apps, whether it’s for creating individual features for Facebook, or whether to remain as their own thing, simply associated with Facebook (like WhatsApp and Instagram).
That’s how Instagram and WhatsApp found themselves under the Facebook umbrella, having initially launched as brands no one had heard of, only to explode in popularity on the back of simple but effective feature and design choices. Both platforms had begun doing interesting things in the social media space, and Zuckerberg decided that the best course of action would be to outright buy them out. That’s fine by most counts, as this is a common strategy in any industry.
The problem, however, is that when Zuckerberg can’t buy you out, he resorts to another, more brutal solution: Copying you to death.
“On one hand, it’s hard to imagine any startup has a unique enough product and deep enough pockets to survive in Facebook’s worlds of social media and messaging,” Bloomberg’s Kurt Wagner writes. “Facebook is a notorious buyer or copier of anything interesting that comes along, and while the company would argue it doesn’t have a literal monopoly on communication products, it’s hard to imagine an upstart thriving on the company’s turf.”
“In the summer of 2016, [Zuckerberg] told company employees at an all-hands meeting that they shouldn’t let their pride get in the way of doing what is best for users—even if that meant copying rival companies,” Wired reported. “Zuckerberg’s message became an informal slogan at Facebook: ‘Don’t be too proud to copy.’ And it certainly wasn’t.”
When Facebook was faced with rejection when it offered to buy Snapchat, it soon after introduced Stories, its version of Snapchat’s expiring photos/videos. This was rolled out across all of the company’s platforms: Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. The strategy was clear: If a competitor shows up on our turf with an interesting USP, we’ll copy it to death across all our platforms until that USP fades away into a hodge-podge of sameness.
Looking at Instagram’s latest home screen redesign, that’s the impression I get once more: a hodge-podge of sameness. For the first time in the app’s history, Instagram is moving its Compose tab away from the center of its navigation bar, signifying that Instagram is discarding its photo-sharing roots and identity to become ‘more of the same.’
Do you know what will replace that iconic camera icon we’ve all come to love? Reels, Instagram’s short form videos that it so blatantly ripped off from TikTok, another company Facebook can’t possibly buy. To make matters worse, Zuckerberg has even gone on the offensive on the political plane to combat rivals like the aforementioned Chinese app.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Zuckerberg made a case against Chinese companies like TikTok in meetings with US President Donald Trump, state senators, and even intelligence officials, highlighting the issue of freedom of speech and the threat to American companies. One has to note the irony given the company’s aggressive practices against competitors, which Zuckerberg admits (including his tendency to copy features) as well as its wavering position on freedom of speech and bias.
Today, while Facebook and co. maintain a semblance of their original selves, their identity does feel threatened. What’s worrying is that Instagram’s latest home screen redesign is most likely just another of many changes coming to Facebook’s family of apps, another step towards apps completely different than the ones we grew to love years ago, all because Facebook’s CEO is so averted to competition.
To play Devil’s Advocate for a moment, one can understand Zuckerberg’s concern with competition, especially when you consider this statement that sheds light on his state of mind:
“Companies are created all the time all over the world, and history shows that if we don’t keep innovating someone will replace every company here today,” Zuckerberg’s opening statement for an antitrust hearing this past July 29th read.
“That change can often happen faster than you expect. Of the 10 most valuable companies a decade ago, only 3 still make that list today. And if you look at where the top technology company has come from, a decade ago the vast majority were American. Today almost half are Chinese,” he added.
For now, he’ll have to contend with anti-trust regulators that are constantly putting his company’s questionable behavior under the microscope, as well as firms national and foreign that are leading him to discard his brands’ identities in pursuit of survival.
Meanwhile, all of us on the users’ end will be left to wonder what will remain of our long-beloved apps.