Ten years ago, though, Facebook went public, and ever since, its strategy has been less about innovation than about goosing wild growth both in its user base and its ad business. Its main technological project became scale — it would build out its infrastructure to serve everyone on earth, and it could leverage that infrastructure to stay on top. When interesting new features popped up online, you could count on Facebook to bring them to the widest audience, even if it didn’t itself invent those features.
For many years, the photostat strategy worked out just fine. There wasn’t even really anything dishonorable about it; the best ideas in tech — or, for that matter, in life — are often pastiches of lots of different ideas. As Steve Jobs said: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Facebook’s artistry lay in its operational excellence more than its originality.
Consider Instagram. When Facebook paid $1 billion for the photo-sharing app in 2012, Instagram had only 13 employees, about 30 million users and no revenue. Facebook showered resources on the company while allowing its founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, wide latitude in running the place. Growth surged. Today more than a billion people use Instagram every month, and in 2018 it may have been worth more than $100 billion. Instagram’s founders left the company in 2018 — reportedly after increasing tensions with Zuckerberg — but they have maintained that the acquisition was ultimately good for users.
The Federal Trade Commission approved Facebook’s purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp, but in 2020, the agency filed suit against Facebook, saying that both deals were part of a “systematic strategy” to maintain a monopoly. Last month, a judge ruled that an amended version of the lawsuit could move forward. There’s almost no chance that regulators will allow Facebook to buy another potential rival anytime soon. That leaves Facebook with another tactic it has honed over many years — borrowing other people’s ideas.
Look, again, at Instagram. When the app started, it was a simple feed of photos. Over the years Facebook has loaded it up it with a slew of features picked up elsewhere. Instagram now broadcasts live streams — a feature first pioneered by start-ups like Twitch and Periscope. One of Instagram’s most popular features is Stories, a kind of photo diary of a user’s day. The Stories format was invented by Snapchat, whose success in the early 2010s looked like it posed a threat to Facebook’s dominance. Zuckerberg tried to purchase the company — now called Snap. No dice. He also tried several ways to clone its features. In 2017, he finally hit big; after putting Stories at the top of the Instagram app, Facebook blew Snap out of the water. Within a year of cloning Snapchat’s best feature, Instagram’s Stories was bigger than Snapchat’s. As if to rub it in, Facebook also added a Stories feature to the Facebook app and to WhatsApp.
Now Facebook is trying to do something similar with Reels, its TikTok clone. Reels made its debut in Instagram in 2020, and in 2021 Reels began rolling out on Facebook. On a call with investors last week, Zuckerberg said that Reels was doing well. But he didn’t go into many specifics, and he mentioned competition posed by TikTok so much that one suspects he isn’t entirely satisfied with how well his clone is competing.
I’m not surprised. I use Instagram often, but I find it increasingly messy. It’s a dog’s breakfast of lots of different social features all sitting uncomfortably together — a place for permanent photos, for ephemeral stories, for influencers’ short videos and even for shopping. The Facebook app, meanwhile, feels like a lost cause of bloat; like a restaurant that serves too many different kinds of cuisines, the app tries to do so much it ends up doing almost nothing well.