Social-media smackdown: Snapchat and Instagram and Facebook, oh my!

Another week, another instalment in the content-sharing cage match.

Facebook’s after Snapchat again. Big surprise.

There’s no denying Snapchat’s influence or demographic dominance. Not only is it wildly popular among smartphone users aged 13 to 34 — its growth rate among users 35 and older exceeds the penetration rate among the 18-24 demographic. This is prompting many brands to re-evaluate their marketing strategies as they look to build engagement with older users.

But why? Reduced it to its essentials, Snapchat is about sharing video content; users can capture video and then dress it up with whimsical music, graphic overlays, and emoji before posting it. Regardless of whether or not it seems “serious,” or “adult,” it’s a model that’s clearly established itself and attracted a great deal of interest from well-known brands. Comedy Central, Buzzfeed, and Vice are in the game, after all, but you’ll also see CNN, Cosmopolitan, and even National Geographic among the players.

Look beneath the surface, however, and there’s nothing remarkably new about the content or the way it’s presented. Text, images, and video — nothing you can’t find get pretty much everywhere on the internet. Obviously, there has to be something more.

So what’s the key to making your app the portal of choice for users who want to share their video content? Obviously, both Facebook and its Instagram proxy want to figure that out. With Instagram’s introduction of its Stories feature last week, its CEO acknowledged that the feature was essentially a Snapchat copy, as did its vice-president of product. Facebook’s also tried under its own brand, most recently with “quick updates” that disappear after 24 hours.

Fortune’s Mathew Ingram pinpoints two of Snapchat’s core features: firstly, it’s private, so there are no public indicators of popularity. Secondly, its content disappears after 24 hours, so it doesn’t need to be that great. In brief, there’s no pressure to amass likes or followers, or to produce terrific content. This reduced “frictional cost,” according to Twitch founder Justin Kan, boosts engagement and, more prosaically, makes social media fun again.

Maybe, then, it’s not just about sharing video. If it were, then why aren’t we hearing from other players? Where’s Twitter in all this? Is Vine still a thing? Tumblr? Vimeo?YouTube, for God’s sake?

There’s no great insight in observing that the players in this want to capture market share, grow their user bases, penetrate new demographics, and so on. Is Snapchat the flavour of the month? It’s not easy to say, but there’s no denying that for now, it’s a pretty hot flavour, judging from Facebook’s pursuit. And given that Zuckerberg’s behemoth has been after it for years, you can’t deny its staying power.

As Ingram points out, Facebook’s continuing quest to buy, copy, or bury Snapchat hasn’t succeeded. It’s a little early, however, to suggest that this will knock the Facebook brain trust down more than a peg or two. They haven’t been the Borg of social media for the last century for nothing.

In the long run, however, this may not matter all that much, because eventually, one can see the goals merging into one another. Instagram wants to increase its share of young users — the ones who like Snapchat because the content disappears after 24 hours, so there’s no pressure to compete for likes. But the impermanence of the content limits its appeal to advertisers, who want to reach a broader audience but have a hard time measuring or guaranteeing engagement. Instagram offers that because its content sticks around.  But it also wants the users who like Snapchat, which is why it’s introducing Stories. Snapchat, on the other hand, wants to attract advertisers, so it has to offer some staying power to the content, which is why you see Discover, brand channels, and Memories.

Ingram says it’s a question of which one reaches its goal first, and billions of dollars are riding on the outcome. Perhaps that’s true for investors. For users, however, it may just boil down to whatever’s cooler that day. It wouldn’t be the first time that tectonic shifts have been triggered by something that simple.

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