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2022 was the year social media started eating itself

Elon’s tanked Twitter, Instagram is in its flop era, and even BeReal is struggling. Is this the beginning of the end for social media?

Student 1: Can I copy your homework? Student 2: Yeah, just change it a little so it doesn’t look obvious you copied me.

So goes the meme based on the permadrama of the school corridors, when this exact discourse would ricochet off locker doors minutes before the bell rings out for class. It’s a classic technique; swap a few words around, add in the odd one yourself and even the most astute, dangerously-caffeinated teacher is likely to notice. Unless, of course, they’ve landed next to each other in the pile, in which case you’re fucked.

There’s an analogy here: this is exactly what’s happened in the world of social media this year. Swap school for Silicon Valley, bells for push notifications, homework for updates and teachers for consumers, and you’re there. Social media has become totally samey; any platform could be put side-by-side in a Can I Copy Your Homework Meme Generator and it would work.

Take BeReal; when it entered the chat back in spring and won the heart-reacts of millions of us, competing platforms didn’t mess around. TikTok created a new feature and an entire standalone app called TikTok Now, which gives you a notification at a certain time in the day to post something spontaneous. Sound familiar? “Not TikTok ripping off BeReal. WHY IS TIKTOK BEREAL NOW???” read one tweet among a wave of negativity, all incredulous at the blatant, blue-links-still-there copy-and-pasting. It wasn’t just TikTok, either: by now, Instagram and Snapchat have also copied the front-camera and back-camera schtick that’s already become part of the internet’s visual language.

Mobile developer and prolific social media leaker developer Alessandro Paluzzi, meanwhile, discovered that Meta was working on IG Candid, an exact replica of BeReal which lived in your Stories tray. Meta, of course, was quick to say it was all just an internal prototype and developers claimed that it had actually been in the works for three years and its release was just coincidental and convenient, with all the conviction of a student searching for a mythical Powerpoint (“it’s here, somewhere”) on a USB stick.

Let’s leave BeReal for a minute, though; there are tonnes of other clones that stick in recent memory. While this trend went into overdrive in 2022, it’s actually a phenomenon that’s been happening for a few years. There’s Twitter Spaces, for example, which copied Clubhouse’s format so we could listen to even more pseudo-experts chatting absolute wham. The popularity of YouTube Shorts, meanwhile, has soared to 30 billion views a day, but it’s basically the same as Instagram Reels, which is pretty much identical to TikTok. Though, wait, didn’t TikTok basically copy Vine? Which is now coming back

According to social media consultant Matt Navarrathis kind of behaviour isn’t totally new. “There are lots of examples of imitation copycats (in the 2010s), stealing the best ideas,” he says. “Platforms realised that what works on one platform can be carried across. They would then create a feature of their own and iterate upon it.”

While there are countless examples of this behaviour, Navarra zooms in on two main themes. First up, vertical. “In terms of UX and UI in the last few years, everything seems to be switching to a vertical feed of videos to some degree and Instagram is rapidly shifting itself to become a single feed and Snapchat started Spotlight,” he says, giving us the inside intel that Netflix has apparently been trialling this too. These days, we’re primed to a vertiginous, vertical scroll that keeps us engaged for longer, backed by a nefariously accurate algorithm that, again, has been cribbed from TikTok.

The second is a similar story – literally. “Stories was originally a Snapchat format which was famously taken by Instagram, when it could see the level of success and amount of time spent by younger users," Navarra says. “It was a great competitive move to keep their growth growing, but to also limit and slow the growth of a big rival.” Pretty much every platform has its own version, now, including Facebook Stories, WhatsApp Status, Twitter Fleets and – probably the most tragic of them all – LinkedIn Stories, which self-destructed last year.

While highlighting Meta as the school bully most likely to “copy someone else’s homework”, he thinks all of them have been guilty. “It saves companies a lot of time and effort, because they can almost see how it’s been tried and tested somewhere else.” He’s quick to note, too, that it’s not just social media that does this. “There are loads of different companies over the years, whether it’s tech or services, that have seen good ideas and created their own version of it.” Like how Bolt took Uber for a ride or Gorillas ate up Getir – loads of apps have copied each other.

Of course, this all makes things easier for the user. Citing Netflix and Disney+, Navarra thinks that we’ve come to expect a similar UI (interface) and UX (experience) in social media, enabling us to pick up new platforms way quicker. It also, though, makes things really dull; what’s the point of using Instagram, BeReal and TikTok if it all looks the same and has the same users? “Once everyone starts to imitate (something), and it’s oversaturated, it’s available everywhere, its value diminishes, and its novelty wears off,” Navarra says.

Imitation aside, there’s also been an implosion; social media platforms have become increasingly unstable, risking brand value and financial ruin. Musk’s takeover of Twitter, for example, has added to this sense that the end is nigh for truly innovative social media. Once the most distinctive social media platform out there, its atmosphere of innovation has been fumigated by Musk and it’s now set to become a nightmare, hobbling along with 50 per cent of its original workforce and facing the real risk of closure.

Many are jumping ship to Mastodon, a horrifically-named alternative to Twitter that promises decentralisation. While its name literally means a large extinct elephant-like mammal, it’s laid down an innovative vision; but its unsexy combination of the Fediverse and Toots doesn’t seem particularly inspiring for creatives, and its craic is really bad.

Meanwhile, Meta laid off 11,000 employees last month, just weeks after employees posted on TikTok, ironically, that their jobs were an absolute doss. “We’ve shifted more of our resources onto a smaller number of high-priority growth areas,” Zuckerberg said in a statement, “like our AI discovery engine, our ads and business platforms, and our long-term vision for the metaverse” – something which doesn’t sound very social at all.

Even BeReal, the winner of 2022, is struggling to monetise. Of course, BeReal’s entire point is to, err, be real, and not do B2B; but it's already allegedly exploring ways to start adding ads and placing product placements. With Meta’s supposed stylus-pushers, Twitter’s chaos and BeReal’s pressure to make money, it’s no wonder social media is keeping it low risk by copying the few things actually working right now: it’s the only thing it can do to avoid a meltdown.

Whether you think BeReal is the saviour of social media or not, at least it was trying to do something original; something increasingly impossible due to the Chalamet-like cannibalisation of platforms, phones and all. No wonder there’s a growing consensus that Instagram is over; as social media expert Kate Lindsay writes: “a series of algorithm changes – and some questionable attempts to copy features from other apps – have disenchanted many of the users who are sticking around”.

It’s set to get worse, too. If, as The Verge writer Casey Newton says, we’re experiencing an era of “murder clones” created to exterminate start-up platforms, original social media is set to die a death. The more features that are copied, the more everything becomes one huge blur. While alternative platforms with different visions do exist – like Twitter-similar Mastodon and Instagram-ish Vero – they become way more appealing when more people are using them. Which then, of course, will lead to them being copied again. “There are less reasons to spend time on another platform once the feature that you would be going there for – their USP – has been imitated and copied,” Navarra says.

Usually, at this point in a school essay, you’d wheel out the old “to conclude” and say it’s a little bit good, a little bit bad, somewhere in the middle. To be honest, though, it’s all a massive shitshow. The worst thing is that, at this point, the “change it a little” bit is hardly even happening; TikTok Now’s ‘rewording’ of BeReal for example, is making each window last for three minutes, not two minutes. Such innovation!  Take a look at Paluzzi’s Twitter leaks, too, and you’ll see way more is on the horizon: Instagram is working on Glimpse and Roll Call (more BeReal things) and Twitter is working on Chat for Communities (Discord, basically). At this point, it’s pure plagiarism; don’t even worry about changing the words, mate. Just make sure to change the name at the top, yeah?