Why ‘Stories’ Became a Feature in Every App on Earth
Netflix steals from TikTok. Instagram steals from Snapchat. Facebook and LinkedIn steal from everyone. Why is this all okay?
In early March, Netflix launched a new feature called Fast Laughs, which let users scroll through vertical videos of short clips from the company’s comedy specials and shows. The streaming giant pitched it as a new way for users to browse shows, but some immediately pegged it as something else: a TikTok clone for branded content. It’s yet another sign that TikTok’s format is so successful that there’s nothing left for competitors to do but copy it.
For newer social media apps, getting copied by a competitor represents both a best- and worst-case scenario. On the one hand, it’s evidence that their approach is working — on the other, it means competitors can wipe out their advantage with minimal effort.
Imagine a world where only one operating system was allowed to use a mouse, or only one phone could use pinch-to-zoom.
Netflix is hardly the first to copy TikTok’s UI design. Instagram cloned TikTok wholesale with Reels. Snapchat also added a TikTok-style music feature to compete in the short-form audio space. Ironically, Snapchat itself is also subject of a mass-copying spree, with clones living inside Facebook and Instagram, Twitter, and even Google Shopping.
Copying design patterns is tricky business, since some patterns are strictly off-limits. Design specifics—including the shape of icons or the layout of buttons—can be patented to protect against direct ripoffs, but broad functionality can’t be. In other words, TikTok can patent its specific comment layout — the screen slides up to cover videos in the feed — but Instagram can create a nearly identical feature, so long as the design isn’t a carbon copy. (On Reels, Instagram shrinks the videos when it pulls up comments.) Very minor changes make the design distinct enough for competitors to offer virtually the same feature.
To a certain extent, this is preferable for end users. Imagine a world where only one operating system was allowed to use a mouse, or only one phone could use pinch-to-zoom. However, it also creates something of a problem for companies that rely on their unique features to draw in users. Since patents can’t cover the core of what makes a platform unique, there’s very little stopping the social media giants from borrowing a newcomer’s entire concept.
In the early years of the internet, it was something of an accepted fact that any sufficiently popular social network could be replaced in just a few years. Friendster gave rise to MySpace, which in turn yielded the floor to Facebook. Today, though, Facebook is still around and carries the weight of nearly 3 billion users. With that many customers, it doesn’t have to buy its competitors: Facebook can copy their features and have a larger user base virtually overnight.
For TikTok, which has 1 billion users of its own, having flattering imitators might just be the natural consequences of success. But for other companies like Snapchat, it can be an existential crisis. Snapchat is still struggling to achieve profitability, with a relatively small 347 million monthly active users, putting it closer to the size of Twitter than Facebook or TikTok. While Snapchat substantially increased its revenue in 2020, one could imagine things going even better if its once-exclusive Stories format hadn’t been ripped off by every social app under the sun — including LinkedIn.
There’s a cautionary tale in Foursquare. Once one of the hottest apps around when it launched at SXSW 2009, it has all but disappeared from the social media landscape today. In 2014, Facebook used Instagram to clone the app’s most famous feature: the ability to check in at a location and let other users know you’re there.
At the time, Foursquare had 45 million users, less than a third of the 150 million people on Instagram then and a minuscule number compared to Facebook’s 945 million. Foursquare simply didn’t have the scale to compete as a social network with a giant that could easily replicate its core feature.
Today, Foursquare is primarily a marketing platform that aggregates location data for businesses. Its data is still in use—you might have even used some of it via other, more popular apps like Airbnb or Uber—but as a social network, Foursquare is effectively nonexistent. Even the company’s primary app has now been rebranded as a City Guide.
Smaller startups aren’t the only ones affected by this phenomenon. Google+ wasn’t widely beloved when it came out, but it brought a number of features that larger competitors like Facebook didn’t have. Shortly after Google launched its robust Events tool—which let users integrate their events into Google Calendar and even collected photos taken at events into albums for users—Facebook launched its own calendar view of events and showed photos that users were tagged in on the same page. Neither feature still exists today.
The influence of Google+ was also felt in other ways. Its Circles feature let users organize their friends by groups. Co-workers could go into one circle, the D&D crew in another, and so on. When a user shared a post, they could choose to let only certain circles see the post. At the time, it was uncommon among social media apps that usually steered users toward sharing everything with everyone.
Shortly after the Google+ launch, Facebook announced a new feature called Smart Lists. It was too late to convince Facebook users to dig through their miles-long friends lists and sort everyone manually, but Smart Lists automatically categorized users based on known criteria—if Facebook knows you all work for the same company, for example, it could create a co-workers list—increasing the likelihood that users would learn to share their posts with only the people they want to see it.
Foursquare and Google+ may be gone, but their best features were picked up by the social media giants that already had the user base to maintain them. And the cycle of copying features continues. Twitter in particular is on a feature-copying bender, announcing a Stories-like Snapchat clone with Fleets, Clubhouse-style audio rooms called Spaces, and even Patreon-ish Super Followers. The company may be trying to figure out its identity in a post-Trump world, but all of its new features seem aimed at expanding its appeal.
Social media giants like Facebook are capable of copying virtually any feature that smaller services implement. Which means those services have a choice: grow their user base to such a self-sustaining level that they can’t be ignored, or live on as a feature in someone else’s app.