From Instagram to TikTok: How social media evolved this decade
Shortly after midnight Pacific time on October 6, 2010, a new app built by a small team went live on Apple’s App Store. Right away, they noticed people abroad signing up for the app, called Instagram; by 6 a.m. the startup was so overwhelmed with traffic that its servers reportedly melted down.
Instagram racked up over 100,000 users in less than a week, making it one of the fastest growing apps ever at the time. By December, it had hit 1 million sign-ups. Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom predicted at the time that “communicating via images” would “take off” in the years to come.
By the end of the decade, Instagram had more than 1 billion users and was part of one of the most valuable tech companies in the world. But it’s also working to beat back a newer rival — TikTok — which is growing fast and looks as novel as Instagram did in the early 2010s.
Instagram’s evolution throughout the decade mirrors the evolution of the broader social media landscape over that time. It started out as a runaway success in the App Store at a time when small startups still appeared to have a fighting chance to compete with more established companies. In 2012, it got acquired by Facebook (FB) for a then-astounding $1 billion in a sign of the consolidation to come across the tech industry. In recent years, Instagram has been copying features from rival networks such as Snapchat (SNAP) and TikTok to adapt to shifting user habits. Like its parent company, Instagram has also had to confront the dark sides of its platform, from misinformation to online bullying.
“When Instagram started, it was primarily about following people without their approval, it was about sharing permanent photos with a wide group of people, and it was about sharing relatively frequently,” said Josh Miller, a former product lead at Facebook.
Now, Instagram — like so much of the social media industry — is focusing on ephemeral posts, experimenting with 15-second music videos and offering options to share privately rather than just publicly.
How the social media landscape evolved in the 2010s: A Timeline
2010: Instagram launches in October of this year and quickly tops one million users.
2011: Snapchat and Google Plus launch. Only one of them would survive the decade.
On the eve of its IPO, Facebook agrees to acquire Instagram for $1 billion, a staggering sum at the time.
Facebook hits one billion monthly active users, a milestone figure that highlights its staggering reach. By the end of the decade, it would have well over 2 billion active users.
Twitter goes public but hits a rough patch on Wall Street as investors realize the size of its audience will never compare to Facebook.
The Wall Street Journal reports Snapchat turned down a $3 billion acquisition offer from Facebook.
2014: Facebook buys WhatsApp for a staggering $22 billion, consolidating its power over the social media market.
2015: Social network Friendster shuts down citing “the evolving landscape in our challenging industry” and the online community not “engaging” as much as it had hoped.
2016: Facebook, Twitter and Google come under fire for the role that their platforms played in spreading misinformation during the 2016 presidential election.
Twitter shuts down Vine, a beloved app for sharing six second video clips.
Bytedance, a Chinese startup, buys Musical.ly, a lip sync platform and later moves its users to TikTok.
2018: Facebook, Twitter and Google face mounting privacy scrutiny in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.
2019: Elizabeth Warren calls for breaking up Facebook by unraveling its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp.
A time before Facebook was the only game in town
At the time of Instagram’s launch, Facebook was a major player in social media, but nowhere near as dominant as it is today.
Other tech giants, including Google and Apple, were also trying to make their own social networks. Snapchat launched in 2011, and Twitter went public in 2013. It felt like a lot of social networks could coexist. But with just 24 hours in a day, users only had so much attention to go around and Facebook proved to be very masterful at garnering it.
Google has since shut down Google+, and Apple’s music-focused social network Ping never took off. Twitter’s audience stalled around 300 million monthly users, a far cry from Facebook’s 2.45 billion monthly users. Snapchat — which arguably set the tone for the decade by pioneering disappearing content — has proved to be more niche than mainstream.
“When Snapchat launched, it presented a totally different way of communicating,” said eMarketer principal analyst Debra Aho Williamson. “What ended up happening, is Snapchat has to a great extent changed the way young people communicate, but it hasn’t taken off with the older groups the way Facebook ended up taking off.”
By the end of the decade, the industry has consolidated quite a bit. Following its acquisition of Instagram, Facebook bought messaging platform WhatsApp for $22 billion in 2014. Facebook also reportedly tried to buy Snapchat for $3 billion in 2013, but founder and CEO Evan Spiegel declined.
In the second half of the decade, a number of social media applications did launch, but unlike Instagram and Snapchat, they never were seen as true competitors to Facebook. Their names — Ello, Peach, Meerkat, Mastodon, Vero — are little more than footnotes now.
For a time, it looked like Instagram would still maintain its independent spirit even after it was acquired. “Facebook let Instagram be this little island that was pumping out standalone apps and doing things a bit differently than Facebook,” said John Barnett, who joined Instagram in 2014 as a product manager when it employed fewer than 75 people.
But that wouldn’t last. In 2018, Instagram cofounders Systrom and Mike Krieger left the company reportedly because of tensions with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over the direction of Instagram. Facebook recently added the words “from Facebook” to the Instagram app and now refers to Instagram’s public relations staff as “Facebook Company” spokespeople.
With Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and its eponymous app, Facebook boasts four platforms that each have more than 1 billion users. It is so dominant that a growing chorus of politicians are now calling for Facebook to be broken up. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has suggested Facebook should spin off Instagram in particular. Facebook’s reputation also took a major hit after revelations that Cambridge Analytica obtained the personal data of as many as 87 million Facebook users, sparking a major privacy awakening across tech.
The rise of TikTok
As the decade came to an end, social media companies found themselves on the defensive. Once seen as useful and playful ways to keep in touch with friends and family, social networks faced a wave of criticisms for spreading misinformation, enabling election meddling and failing to protect user privacy — not to mention concerns about screen-time addiction and online bullying. As a result, Instagram and Facebook are rethinking “likes” and their impact on mental health, Twitter is working on improving well-being, and YouTube has started abbreviating subscriber counts on the platform to help address concerns from its star creators about stress.
The belief that connecting people and building platforms to share information are fundamentally good was challenged again and again.
It was against this backdrop that TikTok began to take off. Launched in 2016, TikTok is all about viral content and racking up lots of views and likes. It’s reminiscent of Vine — a popular six-second video service acquired by Twitter that was shut down in 2017.
Users share videos of themselves doing things like cooking, dancing and lip-syncing. They often feature music in the background. Like Instagram, users can follow other people and “heart” or comment on videos. But the similarities stop there.
Natalie Bazarova, an associate professor at Cornell University who studies social media, said TikTok is “totally different” from Facebook and Instagram. “There is nothing there about building social connections,” she said. “It’s about using algorithms to find content that will hold your attention. It’s an entertainment-based platform.”
That differentiation has made it a hit: TikTok has been installed nearly 1.6 billion times globally to date, according to data from Sensor Tower.
(Ironically enough, it’s partly because of Instagram that TikTok gained traction. The startup flooded its competitors with ads.)
Facebook — and Instagram — have taken notice of TikTok’s success and have released their own copycats of the app. In 2018, Facebook launched an app called Lasso, which lets users create and share short videos with music and camera effects. Earlier this year, Instagram launched a new tool called “Reels” in Brazil, for sharing 15-second videos with music.
How social media will evolve in the decade to come
For ABI Research analyst Eleftheria Kouri, advancements in technology this decade drove the biggest changes in social media, from better smartphone cameras and augmented reality to faster connectivity that allows people to upload Stories or TikTok videos in seconds.
Looking ahead, she believes 5G technology has the power to advance social media even further, and make way for more interactive content and immersive games.
Miller, the former Facebook product lead, believes the next decade will get people closer to feeling like they’re in the same room as people far away.
“Many of our social media experiences are an imperfect replacement for being with someone in person,” he said. “It’s hard to predict what hardware advances will bring, but I’m hopeful that one day I’ll sit down in my apartment in Brooklyn, and I’ll look across my dining room table, and I’ll be able to have dinner with my mom in Los Angeles, sitting across from me.”
Why the popular social media app is about to become even more popular
The 102 million people who tuned in to watch Super Bowl LIV on February 2 were treated to an exciting battle between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers. But, for many viewers, the biggest moments came with the commercials.
Super Bowl commercials, which generally cost companies around $5 million per thirty-second slot, have long been a staple of the big game. This year was no different, with Amazon, Google, Audi, Bud Light, Budweiser, Heinz, and others all airing advertisements.
Prominent, established corporations weren’t the only ones to take advantage of the marketing opportunity. TikTok, the video-sharing social media app that launched in 2017 and has seen exponential growth, ran this ad twice during the game:
The commercial is only the beginning of TikTok’s aggressive marketing strategy to attract a broader, more diverse audience. The social media app is successful among teenagers and young adults, but it has barely made a dent in the middle-aged consumer market.
Here’s a look at how TikTok plans to grow its user base.
Take Advantage of Mass Viewership
TikTok took advantage of the 102 million viewers who tuned in to watch the Super Bowl, and the company plans to advertise during other big games.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, “This year’s Super Bowl efforts could serve as a template for how TikTok approaches other big sporting events, as well as other big cultural events in music, fashion and beauty.”
A spokesperson for TikTok stated that the company will continue with marketing tied to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s March Madness basketball tournament, which drew 10.5 million viewers in 2019. The spokesperson also said that TikTok will advertise during the Tokyo Olympics in the summer.
“TikTok is part of the zeitgeist now. We’re going to continue marketing at these large tentpole moments,” the spokesperson said .
Even for companies that lack the resources to advertise at the Super Bowl or Olympics, finding ways to reach a large audience is crucial.
How can you reach the largest audience possible using the marketing resources available? What consumers are you trying to attract?
These are the questions that any marketing team should be asking.
Team Up With Other Companies
Advertising is usually thought of as one company paying another to reach a larger audience. For example, TikTok paid FOX to stream its advertisements during the Super Bowl.
But what if advertisements weren’t such a zero-sum game? What if marketing teams could join forces to help both companies?
This is exactly what TikTok has done with its “hashtag challenges.” The challenges allow brands to buy advertisement slots on TikTok’s own platform, generating views for both the brand and the social media company.
According to the Wall Street Journal , “Hashtag challenges get prominent placement on the TikTok app, according to ad agency executives, and can generate hundreds of millions of views on the platform if successful. As of last fall, TikTok was charging brands $150,000 for a sponsored ‘hashtag challenge’…”
One of those brands was Kind, the popular snack bar. Kind launched a contest with the hashtag #kindsimplecrunchcontest, encouraging TikTok users to post videos emphasizing the snack bar’s “crunch.” Within 24 hours, Kind’s original post had received 18 million views.
As the site AdAge reveals , TikTok “has mostly attracted entertainment brands like Radio Disney (1.5 million followers) and Netflix (575,400 followers).” Other brands include Kind, Red Bull, Kit-Kat, Coca-Cola Japan, Mountain Dew, Hyundai, and Chipotle, just to name a handful of the brands that have begun marketing on the video-sharing app.
Innovate Ad Technologies
TikTok has shown that it can compete with the biggest advertisers. To do this, the company has constantly innovated its marketing systems.
According to the Financial Time s, TikTok’s marketing campaign “includes fine-tuning advertising targeting capabilities, better automating its ad-buying process and building up third-party monitoring and verification of its ad metrics…”
By doing this, the company is “building ad technologies to reach a par with the reigning Google-Facebook advertising duopoly.”
Companies often find success in a certain marketing strategy and then remain complacent in that success, but TikTok has shown a willingness to try new techniques.
As Blake Chandlee, TikTok’s head of global business solutions, put it in December of 2019,
“We think we can build our ads platform in a way that is consistent with where the world’s going rather than where the world’s been.”
This foreseeing strategy is something that any marketing team can emulate. Instead of looking at where you are now, look at where you want to be in one year, two years, or five years. Where is the future leading you?
As TikTok’s marketing structure shows, answering those questions is crucial to finding success.
YouTube is reportedly planning to launch an in-app rival to viral video-sharing app TikTok before the end of 2020
YouTube reportedly plans to launch a shortform video-sharing feature inside its mobile app by the end of 2020 in an attempt to make a dent in the surging popularity and impact of TikTok.
The feature is called “Shorts,” and will live within YouTube’s existing mobile app, according to The Information . It seems the feature will mimic to concept of TikTok: a feed of super-short videos that act as an alternative to longer vlogs and clips that appear on YouTube.
With nearly two billion downloads , TikTok has become the go-to launchpad for memes and internet culture since it was launched by Chinese-based company ByteDance in September 2017 . When TikTok debuted in the US just under a year later, it became the next best thing for creators yearning for a replacement for Vine since Twitter shut it down in 2016.
But Shorts may be able to pose a real threat with its roots tied to YouTube, the most popular video-sharing platform in the world that’s been around for more than 15 years. Because Shorts will exist inside YouTube’s app, users will be able to harness the established platform’s extensive library of licensed music and soundtracks when making videos. It also means that YouTube won’t have to convince users to download another app onto their phones to use Shorts, and creators who have built up millions of subscribers on their existing YouTube channels won’t have to convince their fanbase to migrate over to another app for more content.
US-based companies and startups have made several attempts at their own apps to take on TikTok, but none have been able to reach the level of popularity that TikTok has achieved and is continuing on which to build. The only similar platform to have found comparable success in the US is Musical.ly — which ByteDance acquired in 2017 , then shut down a year later to merge into TikTok.
Facebook released a TikTok competitor in November 2018 named Lasso, but little has been heard from the app since its debut. Vine’s cofounder launched an app called Byte in early 2020, which has seen some initial succes s in download numbers but has yet to birth any internet stars or viral memes. Triller, advertised as a music-discovery app, is banking on partnerships with major music labels to rival TikTok. Although lip-syncing app Dubsmash has been instrumental in launching some TikTok-famous dances — notably, the “The Renegade” — it has only around one-third of the US downloads of TikTok, according to Sensor Tower data provided to TechCrunch in early 2020 .
Google, YouTube’s parent company, was rumored to be in talks to acquire a TikTok competitor called Firework, the Wall Street Journal reported in October 2019 . It’s unclear where those discussions are at now, but they could have been dropped now that YouTube is planning to release Shorts sometime this year.