My screen time is ridiculous–I’m not ashamed of it. If I can scroll, I’m there baby, and I’m disciplined with it, I have my routine: 40+ minute YouTube videos when I’m eating or doing other tasks; Instagram when I want to click through Stories and see what acquaintances are up to; Twitter to hear what’s new in the world; Snapchat to see and talk to close friends daily; TikTok when I want to throw caution to the wind and let an algorithm decide what I see.
Lately, though, this routine has been getting harder and harder because every update chips away at the separation between these platforms. At first it was little changes, everyone under the sun added Stories, and I liked these, and am quite sad that Twitter removed its Fleets (#bringbackFleets!). Now though, TikTok wants YouTube’s long-form content, YouTube is force-feeding Shorts to its creators, Snapchat tries to deliver ‘news’ like Twitter, and Instagram is going full identity-crisis and adding Reels, overhauling their algorithm, and pivoting to full-screen feeds a-la-TikTok. It’s harder and harder to know which platform will give me the experience I want in that moment because everyone’s in an arms race to add the ‘newest’ feature that some other platform just debuted.
I can’t help feeling like an angsty teen whose parents just don’t get them. Every platform is so focused on emulating other platforms in an attempt to lure users to their site that they neglect the wants of their existing users. Instagram’s newest changes to its algorithm and layout are a blatantly transparent mimicry of TikTok–so blatant that I feel the need to match that vibe: Instagram, if I want to use TikTok, I’m going to use TikTok. You can’t outdo the doer, so why not focus on being the most Instagram-est version of Instagram? People love(d) Instagram for the photos, so why not lean in and optimize photo sharing?
While this platform-merging bothers me as a consumer, it has broader implications for the creators on each platform. As a YouTube creator myself, I have been frustrated by the push for YouTube Shorts. One of the greatest benefits of the platform is its limitless video length. On my own channel, I make video essays and my most popular video is 2-hours long! I have built my channel around long videos that I enjoy making and that my audience enjoys watching, but the push for Shorts puts me in a tough spot. Do I keep me and my audience happy by continuing with longer videos, videos that the current algorithm pushes less, meaning that my video will be shown to fewer people; or, do I sell-out and pivot to posting (what are essentially) TikToks in order to please the platform, videos that betray my own interests and that of my audience? How can creators stay honest to themselves and their audiences when algorithms heavily favor new features that are the opposite of what they’re accustomed to making?
Social media executives seem to be breaking the cardinal rule to sustainable social media success: be authentic to yourself. I’m aware that Instagram isn’t a person, but in the past I used to “know” them, and I used to feel like they made changes for both their users and their investors. Now, I have no idea what Instagram is supposed to be, and I can’t help but think that these changes were made solely because of investors. To someone who doesn’t breathe social media, it can be easy to assume that features that are successful for TikTok will be successful for them, but the success of these features is endemic to the social ecosystem that they live in; garlic tastes delicious in a pasta dish, but put it in a cake and you’ll have a not-so-happy camper.
Companies and organizations who use social media should keep this in mind when posting: just because platforms have increasingly similar features does not mean that they have similar audiences, and the same piece of content shouldn’t go on every platform. Platforms themselves need to do a better job of serving what their creators and users want, and I promise that no user wants an amalgamous blob of short-form-video-plus-whatever-format-was-originally-on-the-platform. They want distinction that they can taste.