There are two opposing theories of competition among social media platforms. One holds that social networks are inherently faddish: Kids don’t want to be on the same platforms as their parents, and newer, cooler options are bound to pop up and supplant their predecessors eventually. The other says that social networks are inherently sticky: Everyone wants to go where their friends and their favorite influencers already are, which means that large, established incumbents with lots and lots of users will always have an advantage over upstart rivals.
For years, the second theory had the upper hand: Facebook and its subsidiaries dominated the sector and seemed willing and able to buy up or copy any competitors that crossed their path.
But now the momentum seems to be shifting: New, independent social media platforms are starting to proliferate—and thrive—after a few dormant years. TikTok and Clubhouse are the most visible new entrants, but dozens of other nascent contenders are hoping to follow in their footsteps.
Why now? There are a few possible factors that help explain the new faces in the field:
- Regulators spooked Facebook by stepping up antitrust enforcement. Wary of attracting negative attention, the social media giant has eased up on its usual practice of buying up potential competitors, giving them time to develop on their own.
- Users have embraced new content formats and no one platform can do everything well. Apps like TikTok and Clubhouse filled unserved niches (short video and live audio, respectively) that the major platforms left vacant.
- Incumbents lost users’ trust. Facebook and Twitter have borne the brunt of the blame since 2016 for amplifying misinformation, snooping on user data, and applying inconsistent moderation standards, leaving people more willing to try out a new option.
- The pandemic left people feeling bored, lonely, and eager to find new ways to connect via social media.
Whatever the reason, we’re about to find out which theory is right. The challengers could continue to grow, carving out their own niches or even stealing market share for Facebook. Or the giants could win again.
The challengers: These young multi-billion dollar platforms are nipping at the heels of social giants that grew up in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
- Tiktok: China’s first globe-spanning social app has cemented its place alongside US-based competitors like Facebook and Twitter.
- Clubhouse: With just 10 million users, the year-old audio-only platform generated major buzz during the pandemic and has spawned copycats from almost every major social media player. (More on that below.)
- Discord: After turning down an acquisition offer from Microsoft, the audio- and text-based chat platform is eying an IPO.
Experiments to watch: These nascent platforms are testing users’ appetite for new content formats that haven’t been packaged together in exactly the same way by the reigning social networks.
- Houseparty: The video chat app allows users to spontaneously hop into calls with any of their friends who are online, or join any open group conversation in which they know at least one person.
- Yubo: This French social network aimed at teens combines elements of dating apps like Tinder with live streams of everyday life you might find on Twitch.
- Poparazzi: The photo sharing app doesn’t allow users to add pictures to their own profiles. Instead, users add to their friends’ profiles by uploading photos of them (acting as their paparazzi—get it?).
- Honk: In this live texting app, messages aren’t saved and friends see your messages in real time as you type them.
2004: Mark Zuckerberg drops out of Harvard and launches Facebook.
2005: Two University of Virginia students launch Reddit with $100,000 from Y Combinator.
2006: Two ex-Google employees launch Twitter as a side project while building a podcasting tool.
2009: WhatsApp is founded. Facebook would later buy it and guide its growth to 2 billion users.
March 2010: Pinterest launches in an early beta mode.
Oct. 2010: Instagram is founded. Facebook would later buy it and guide its growth to 1 billion users.
Of the newer challengers mentioned above, Discord was founded first, in 2015. It wasn’t until 2018 that the app began seeing explosive growth—and, as with TikTok and Clubhouse, Discord was catapulted into further popularity during the pandemic in 2020.
As more apps and services add social elements to their product offerings, it’s becoming increasingly hard to know what should count as a social platform.
Video games like Fortnite have blurred almost entirely into social spaces, especially as gamers embrace online communities built around live streaming platforms like Twitch. Executives at Fortnite-maker Epic talk openly about their aspiration to morph their gaming empire into the early stages of a coming metaverse—a slippery concept that describes a future in which we spend more of our time working and hanging out in virtual worlds.
Other platforms sell users the opportunity to interact with their favorite influencers, borrowing features and formats from influencer-heavy platforms like Instagram. You can buy a personal message from a minor celebrity on Cameo, or pay a monthly subscription to chat with creators on the not-just-for-porn (but mostly for porn) video-sharing site OnlyFans. Substack, the email newsletter platform, launched “discussion threads,” where newsletter subscribers can chat with each other in a forum moderated by their favorite authors.
Meanwhile, traditional social apps are changing, too, as they try to position themselves as e-commerce platforms. Instagram wants users to shop directly from their feeds, and Facebook is experimenting with live streams dedicated to shopping (mimicking a format that has already taken off in China through platforms like Kuaishou).
Everyone’s copying everyone, and everything’s becoming a little bit more like social media.
Seemingly every social media platform wants to be Clubhouse now. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Spotify, and Reddit are developing their own features to mimic the live audio chat rooms that made Clubhouse famous. And while many of them are attempting, unconvincingly, to position their copycats as all-new inventions, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield dropped the artifice and flat-out announced on Clubhouse that he intended to steal Clubhouse’s idea. Among the copycats, Twitter Spaces seems to have gotten off to the most promising start, although there are some kinks to work out.
Virtually every social network vowed to improve its content moderation practices in response to 2020’s twin misinformation crises: the coronavirus pandemic and conspiracy theories surrounding the US presidential elections. But a handful of American and Canadian right-wing social media alternatives are testing whether a platform can survive and thrive by taking the opposite approach—proudly refusing to moderate most content.
Apps like Parler, a conservative Twitter alternative that briefly topped the charts in Apple and Google’s app stores, Rumble (video hosting), MeWe (sort of like Facebook), and Gab (another Twitter clone) have declared their ideological commitment to letting users post anything they want within the bounds of the law. That, predictably, led the platforms to become havens for conspiracy peddlers and hate groups. But it also led to more banal platform management challenges, like Parler feeds becoming inundated with porn.
Ultimately, Parler’s anti-moderation stance got it thrown off the internet after the site was implicated in the planning of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. As a condition for allowing Parler to return to the app store, Apple forced the platform to begin moderating hate speech. Parler’s willingness to accept Apple’s terms illustrates that even the most laissez-faire platforms will have to accept a certain level of moderation.
Facebook owns four of the world’s most popular social platforms, illustrating the extent to which the company was able to consolidate its power over social media over the past decade.
It’s all but impossible to predict which platforms will become cool—or even to explain, after the fact, why some apps exploded in popularity.
Take the rise of Clubhouse. Many tech observers credited Elon Musk with popularizing the app during his heavily hyped first appearance in a Clubhouse room. But much of Clubhouse’s ethos of cool was cultivated by an early-adopting cohort of Black creators, who arguably had more of an impact on the app’s development and growth than any other constituency.
Other times “cool” just means “whatever the teens are doing,” as the rise of TikTok illustrates. Teenagers concocting elaborate dance trends were an early and defining vehicle for the app’s viral spread. Even now, Gen Z uses the app as a staging ground for brutal roasts of their millennial elders—which only seems to make millennials want in on it more.
A common thread in both apps’ rise is their user bases’ embrace of political activism and social justice, which, as Quartz’s Marc Bain reported last year, has become central to the new meaning of cool.
Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok: The social shopping race (Vogue Business) The world’s biggest social media platforms are sprinting to reinvent themselves as e-commerce businesses.
Facebook, Twitter and a future of social that’s increasingly audio (CNBC) The pandemic created an unexpected boom for podcasting and live audio content, opening the door for Clubhouse and Discord and spurring new investments from Facebook, Twitter, and Spotify.
We need more video games that are social platforms first, games second (Techcrunch) Video games are morphing into virtual worlds where players can just hang out, regardless of whether they’re racking up achievements or beating the final boss.
There Are No New Social Networks (The Ringer) This piece from 2017 explores how fervent copycatting drove social media into a period of dull stagnation.
The Stickiest, Most Addictive, Most Engaging, and Fastest-Growing Social Apps—and How to Measure Them (Andreessen Horowitz) The famed venture capital firm lays out its argument for a broader definition of “social media” and the numbers that meaningfully convey which platforms are growing and which are stagnating.