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Facebook’s Ongoing Feud With Snapchat Raises Questions About Digital Monopolies

The social media giant has no problem mimicking its rivals

8Aug

As technological feuds go, Facebook’s tussle with Snapchat is a relatively long-standing one. In 2012 - just one year after Snapchat launched its ephemeral messaging service - Mark Zuckerberg flew out to Snapchat owner Evan Spiegel’s hometown to discuss a $3 billion cash acquisition. Spiegel rejected the ‘short-term’ gain (a gain of some $750 million per owner) and has even now resisted selling the company despite its incredible valuation. Thus, a conflict was born.

Since then Facebook has released a number of copycat apps designed to use its considerable weight to annex Snapchat’s user base. The most notable of which was Poke, which was quickly pulled after failing to attract anything like the user numbers it needed. The Verge aptly pointed out it ‘takes more than a few talented engineers to beat Snapchat’ but, at the beginning of August 2016, Facebook took a different and far more threatening tact.

Instagram Stories - named as a straight-faced mimic of one of Snapchat’s most popular features - is so remarkably similar to its rival’s original that it’s been the subject of some ridicule. This might not matter, though. Instagram (owned by Facebook) has a regular user base of 300 million, double that of Snapchat’s reported numbers. Current Snapchat users will doubtless continue using the app, but Instagram’s feature threatens the mass adoption - it infiltrates markets Snapchat currently has no stake in - that Snapchat desperately needs as part of its eventual plan to go public.

The move is just the most recent in Facebook’s strive for digital monopoly. According to reports, Facebook also plans to alter its primary app to encourage users to take and share selfies, with filters and editing software inbuilt in a manner not at all dissimilar to Snapchat. The feature is only set to be an experiment and may not be available outside of Brazil - it’s ostensibly a stunt for the Olympics - but don’t be surprised to see it rolled out worldwide before long.

A Facebook monopoly is something we should all be concerned about - as, indeed, we should with any form of digital monopoly. In some cases, tech companies are already powerful enough to essentially rewrite the rulebook with regard to privacy and expansion, and in the very worst cases threaten net neutrality itself. Europe, for example, has a history of limiting US tech companies in the continent in the interest of competition and the protection of European business.

A good example of Facebook’s dominance having a real impact on others is the degree to which some publishers rely on it for exposure. Facebook has changed its algorithm a few times to limit clickbait articles making their way onto users’ news feeds, but a recent algorithmic change saw the company favor user-generated content over all published content.

Publishers have long been at the mercy of Facebook when it comes to generating an often significant portion of their traffic through the site, and have often had to alter their content to suit Facebook’s algorithm (think live video, for example). The algorithmic changes are invariably in the interest of the user, and the latest is a step to bring Facebook back to an aggregation of user-generated content rather than a publishing free-for-all. What they highlight, though, are the dangers of monopolization, given the interdependencies that exist cross-industry.

Whether Instagram’s new feature successfully tackles Snapchat or ends up on the dust pile, Facebook’s adoption of rivals’ features and - in the cases of Instagram and WhatsApp - their companies, only adds to its stranglehold on the social media market. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s doubtful Snapchat will be too optimistic about Facebook’s continued efforts to swallow it whole.

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