When Instagram (and by extension Facebook) announced the rollout of Instagram Stories during summer 2016, the company wasn’t shy about acknowledging that its newest product was all but a carbon copy of Snapchat. In design. In functionality. And, most blatantly, in its name: Instagram didn’t even bother finding a synonym for the made-famous-by-Snapchat term “Stories.” Months later, at the beginning of February 2017, Snap, Inc. filed its IPO and acknowledged — though not by name — that Facebook’s copycatting could impact its business: “Our competitors may mimic our products and therefore harm our user engagement and growth.” In an interview with the Times of London, model Miranda Kerr, fiancée of Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, put it more bluntly this week: “I cannot STAND Facebook … Can they not be innovative? Do they have to steal all of my partner’s ideas? I’m so appalled by that.… When you directly copy someone, that’s not innovation.”
But innovation might not matter as much as it used to in Silicon Valley. Instagram has a large, captive audience that it’s all too happy to leverage in its quest to beat Snapchat — and scarily for Snap, there’s some evidence it’s succeeding. The week before Snap’s IPO, BuzzFeed published a story with data indicating that engagement was spiking on Instagram Stories (and, in Asia, on Korean Snapchat-clone Snow), while growth on Snapchat had stagnated. Around the same time, talent managers and analytics providers told TechCrunch they’d seen anywhere from a 20 to 50 percent decrease in story views since Instagram Stories hit the scene.
Of course, these reports need to be taken with a grain of salt. While Instagram is growing at a faster rate than Snapchat, it still has a large lead in time spent per user. And while people in the business of social-media fame might note a decrease in story views, there’s still another larger, more important group of Snapchat users who seem to remain loyal — at least for now — to Evan Spiegel: The teenagers on whose stories and messages the service was built.
“I use both [Instagram and Snapchat], but I definitely use Snapchat Stories way more,” Jillian, a high-school senior from Oregon told Select All. “I think I’ve only used Instagram Stories maybe four or five times.” Jenna, a 19-year-old from Texas, estimated that she posts a Snapchat Story “almost every day,” compared to “maybe a few times a month” for an Instagram Story. Cole, 16, said that despite having active accounts on both apps, he’s never even bothered to post an Instagram Story. Michael, 17, said the same. In fact, of the dozen teenagers and college students Select All spoke with, only one said she preferred Instagram Stories over Snapchat, a preference heavily influenced by the fact that Snapchat was “almost always slow” on her Android phone. (A not-uncommon complaint among Android-device owners.) For everyone else, it was Snapchat all the way.
Their reasons? For many of these teens, Snapchat takes the number one spot simply because Snapchat invented the platform in the first place. “Instagram basically copied Snapchat,” Sam, a high schooler from North Carolina, said. “It’s kinda … stupid.” Cole said that the high level of popularity of Snapchat with his classmates makes Instagram Stories “irrelevant,” and he doesn’t see anything Instagram could do to make them feel like they needed to make the switch. “Stories just doesn’t seem like the function of Instagram,” Neira, a 19-year-old college freshman from New York, explained. “It was a kinda unnecessary add-on.”
While the introduction of Instagram Stories might have slowed engagement and growth on Snapchat on a large scale, it only seems to have galvanized the loyalty of Snapchat’s younger users. For them, Instagram borrowing from its competitor doesn’t seem like a savvy business move (which, clearly, it was), but rather a cheap play. “I think that people feel like Instagram just ripped off Snap Stories,” Verity, an 18-year-old college student in Massachusetts, told Select All. Emily, a high-school student in California, also acknowledged that the two apps serve the same purpose, but said she and her friends use Snapchat Stories exclusively. “I think it’s because Snapchat Stories have been here longer than Instagram Stories,” she said. “I’ve definitely heard a few jokes mocking Instagram for copying Snapchat,” Jillian added.
Cyrene Quiamco, a professional Snapchatter who racks up an annual six-figure salary for her expertise, says she’s not surprised to hear that teenagers are still clamoring for Snapchat, even while user engagement spikes on Instagram Stories. “It’s still the younger people,” she told Select All of the group she believes is Snapchat’s core audience. “The teens who have already established friends there.” She also said she’s not surprised Instagram Stories has been such a success with, well, non-teens. “There is a different audience for Instagram. You’ve got more people, like 20- to 30-years-olds, who established and grew their brands on Instagram,” she said. “These people might have tried to grow on Snapchat, but probably went back to Instagram [once it started offering the same feature as Snapchat].” (Interestingly, several interview subjects told Select All they prefer Snapchat because they find it easier to use and a better-designed feature than Instagram Stories, which will come as news to any 30something who’s opened up Snapchat and fruitlessly tried to swipe through it to figure out how to make it work.)
It’s worth noting that while these teenagers aren’t posting their own Instagram Stories, many of them will watch a story posted by an account they’re following. “Most of them are from celebrities and brands and dogs,” Jenna said. “I see a lot of people using both and posting the same thing on both. Even the filters [so you can tell it was originally a Snapchat Story],” Anna explained. This might reveal, to some extent, a bifurcation of uses for the two platforms: Instagram, a platform to follow public figures, brands, celebrities, and meme accounts; and Snapchat, to follow — and message with — well, your friends.
Of course, even if the two apps can stake out some independent territories, they both still have work to do. Snapchat has to figure out how to keep users Snapping and swiping while features like Instagram Stories and, down the road, Facebook Stories enable their much-larger user base to get similarly quick content on platforms they’re already using heavily. (Also Snap, as per last week’s IPO, still has to figure out how to actually turn a profit. The company lost $514.6 million last year.) Instagram, and by extension Facebook, is clearly happy to play Snapchat’s game — but faces its own problems: Multiple teens told Select All that, at this point, they didn’t see any feature that Instagram could introduce that would make them want to use it over Snapchat.
Of course, a lot can happen in a short time. One of Snapchat’s defining features, lenses — dog face, flower crown, rainbow vomit, that one that makes you look like an old person with excellent bone structure — isn’t even eighteen months old. Instagram may already be onto its next big thing: “Snap is mainly for stories,” Sam said. “Pretty much the only thing Instagram is good for is live video.”