Is Facebook a Monopoly? Just Ask Snapchat

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Photo: Instagram

Facebook announced yesterday that its newest Instagram feature, Stories, has surpassed 200 million daily active users. “New,” of course, is relative: The disappearing-video format, which has redefined social media, was invented and pioneered by Snapchat, before being shamelessly ripped off by Instagram. But even a stingy estimation of Instagram’s figures means that a group of people about the size of the population of Pakistan is either posting Stories to Instagram, or checking out their friends’ Stories every day. To celebrate, Facebook introduced a new feature — stickers that users can “place” on objects in a video to track the video’s movements. If that sounds familiar, it should: Like Stories, “pinned” stickers that move along with video are a Snapchat feature that Facebook has recycled for its own social network.

A bad sign for Facebook, right? A formerly pacesetting business must be out of ideas if it’s just copying ideas from a newer and more creative competitor. Except, as of its IPO earlier this year, Snapchat boasts only 161 million daily active users. In the span of less than a year, Instagram managed to rip off Snapchat’s defining feature, and then surpass it.

That Instagram Stories are already seeing more users than Snapchat confirms a couple of assertions. The first is, more than any single product or feature, the social graph (friends, family, and the links between every part of your social circle) that most networks maintain is their single most important asset. Instagram’s Stories are successful, in part, because you didn’t need to build an entire new friends list. The second is, Facebook is completely unafraid of leveraging its enormous social graph to make use of its competitors’ innovations and choke those competitors out. This is obviously terrifying to Snapchat — but users should be terrified, too.

There’s a long, not-so-proud history in the tech industry of larger companies enfolding smart features and ideas from smaller ones into their platforms, often killing small businesses in a single move. The company most famous for this behavior is Apple, which once updated its Sherlock search bar to copy a feature from a third-party app called “Watson,” obviating Watson, and giving rise to the term “Sherlocking.” (Apple is still up to this: Its new screen-dimming feature Night Shift is just a version of a popular app called f.lux.)

Sherlocking works because the larger company has access to the platform itself. Millions of people already used Apple’s OS, were captive to updates, and were inclined to take the most frictionless road to functionality; with Sherlock, not only could Apple introduce new search features to the millions who would never have seen Watson otherwise, but it could also entice Watson users away by making Sherlock identical in features and easier to use.

Facebook introducing Stories to Instagram (and its other apps) isn’t Sherlocking — in fact, in some ways, it’s worse. Rather than taking third-party apps built to run on its platform and making their features native, it’s taking a defining feature from a direct, smaller competitor, and putting all of its social-graph muscle behind it. And as yesterday’s numbers show, it’s working.

Snapchat isn’t as big as Facebook — which means it not only has fewer users, but that those users are less likely to have their entire social circles on the app. This less comprehensive social graph means that Snapchat needs a real competitive edge to bring people over to its app. For a long time, that edge was Stories, a fresh and interesting type of social-media post.

But if Stories is on Instagram — where you’re likely already following, and being followed by, your entire social circle — what can Snapchat really offer? Instagram’s Stories product isn’t different that Snapchat’s, or an improvement on it. It’s just on the app that everyone else is already on. When Facebook introduced a Stories feature to its main app a few weeks ago, it was clear that the social network was taking a kitchen-sink approach — introducing to its app as many features and doodads as possible. Why would an app make itself almost unusably overstuffed? Because for all of Facebook’s problems, it knows that people won’t leave it, since that would also mean cutting off a primary means of contact with their social circles. What this ultimately means is that Facebook’s dominant size and expansive social graph will block out any competitors, simply by mimicking the most attractive new features.

Facebook, since it launched Instagram Stories, has argued that Stories is a format, more than a proprietary piece of technology owned by Snapchat. This is a fair defense. (Arguably, “stories” is a social-media commodity.) But Facebook is not copying just one feature of Snapchat, it’s also copying the app’s layout (swiping between camera screens, public feeds, and your inbox). And this week, Facebook changed its direct-messaging software to more closely mirror Snapchat’s. It’s also already introduced cut-and-pasted geofilters, stickers, and virtual face masks to its Stories products on Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. This has gone far beyond copying a single feature from Snapchat — Facebook is stripping the smaller app and installing its parts, and because of its size, it can get away with it.

This is not to say that Snapchat is doomed. Instagram adding users does not correlate directly with Snapchat losing them. Plus, Snapchat does have one defining feature that Facebook will never have, which is strong branding as a privacy-conscious company. Part of the reason Instagram was able to rip off Stories so easily was because Stories is public-facing. Private messaging, which Snapchat built its company on, is still a key feature. Facebook, with all of its creepy data mining, can’t really compare.

But the competition between Facebook and Snapchat is about more than just which one will have more users — it’s about increasing concentration in an increasingly less dynamic industry. So far, criticism of Facebook’s Snapchat imitations had been couched in language of morality and taste — it’s a “bad look.” But when it’s considered as a business strategy, employing Facebook’s sheer magnitude as leverage to box out competitors, it sounds less like a dishonorable practice, and more like an anti-competitive, monopolistic one. Just as Microsoft was accused of using the size of its user base to win browser wars, Facebook looks as though it’s using the size of its user base to win social wars — or, really, to build an impregnable wall around its kingdom.

Is Facebook a Monopoly? Just Ask Snapchat