There’s a clip of The Eric Andre Show called “Hannibal’s Pretzels” that I find strangely applicable in a multitude of situations. In the segment, comedian Hannibal Buress goes down a line of pretzel-filled bowls, trying different brands of pretzels. He gets through two, Rold Gold and Tiny Twists, before asking an offscreen producer, “What is this segment? Pretzels are the same.” The joke asks what the point of debating pretzel nuance is when, at the end of the day, they all taste like pretzels. They’re all pretzels; you know what they taste like.
Anyway, that’s apps now.
As Recode illustrates with an excellent Venn diagram, the biggest mobile apps in the world — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Messenger — are all, basically, the same: some unholy mélange of News Feed, live video, disappearing posts, and private messages. All of this has recently come to a head as Facebook has started aggressively copying Snapchat’s defining features, with little effort to put its own spin on it. To be fair, ripping someone else off is a long-standing tradition in the consumer-tech industry.
There are at least two ways to think about this: One is that all of these apps are slowly congealing into the Platonic form of “mobile social app.” The other is that each one is becoming an overstuffed tech nightmare, as the companies that control them (and Facebook owns four of the six) hedge their bets on the future of social media.
One reason to buy into the latter theory is how well this diagram illustrates Facebook’s increasing lack of clear identity. Unlike most of the others, the main Facebook app doesn’t really have a defining “thing” that it does well: Twitter’s defining unit of content is the text status, Instagram owns photos, Snapchat owns disappearing messages, and none of them is particularly noteworthy when it comes to live video. Facebook’s brand identity as of now is less a clear product feature and more the Intangible Bottomless Maw Into Which All of Your Online Activity Disappears. Which is, I guess, impressive, but doesn’t really seem like a great pitch plastered across a billboard. And as Facebook forces new features into Instagram and WhatsApp, it runs the risk of giving those apps the same identity problem.
This is not really a crisis for Facebook, of course. In a perfect world, all of these incestuous apps cyberfucking each other would leave them vulnerable to a true game changer entering the arena with a defining, unique feature and upending the spectrum. My personal opinion is that most apps should do one or two things well — the way Instagram did for the first few years of its existence — rather than everything. (That’s kinda how we got into the current looming crisis of an internet centralized under half a dozen corporations.) In reality, as Facebook’s no-longer-veiled willingness to rip off its competitors to stay on top shows, it’s probably just going to be these companies forever, gobbling up anyone smaller than they are. It’s similar to why Coke and Pepsi have been locked in an exclusive two-party battle for the last half-century: Anybody else who comes close just gets swallowed up or crushed.