Stealing has been praised by T.S. Eliot ("immature poets imitate; mature poets steal"), Igor Stravinsky ("a good composer does not imitate; he steals"), Pablo Picasso ("good artists copy, great artists steal"), Steve Jobs (quoting, or stealing from, Picasso). Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg may, in his own way, have once again revamped this formula:
— Mark Zuckerberg (@finkd) July 6, 2023
Zuckerberg shared the meme above shortly after launching Threads, the "Twitter killer." As Voz Media explained then: it was a new social network that copied Elon Musk’s platform and aimed to kill it. This proved to be difficult, considering Threads’ most recent numbers.
The creation of Threads in the image and likeness of Twitter (now X) is just the latest “inspiration” that Zuckerberg has taken in. He has a long history of successful (and not so successful) imitations.
What are Meta's most famous robberies? Is it a winning strategy?
In 2016, Facebook had Snapchat in its sights. After trying to buy it three years earlier, Zuckerberg's company decided to take another direction.
Meta adopted Snapchat's “stories” feature, short photos and videos that disappear after 24 hours. He even gave them the same name on Instagram and Facebook. In WhatsApp, there is a similar feature called "status."
In both competing networks, this functionality allows the user to edit images with stickers, freehand drawings, text and filters.
That same year, Meta also developed the ability to send messages that disappear after a set period of time, a feature previously introduced by Snapchat.
Thefacebook, the first version of the social media launched when Zuckerberg was a student at Harvard in 2004, already had a dating option, initially only for Harvard students. In the user's profile it was possible to add that one was looking for a romantic date.
In 2019, Facebook recalled these origins, launching Facebook Dating. Perhaps Zuckerberg had an eye on his competition as well, as the display of user profiles was similar to that of Tinder and Bumble, leaders in the dating market.
Shares of Match Group, which owns Tinder and dating platform OkCupid, fell more than 17% when Meta announced the new Facebook feature, The Verge reported at the time.
Facebook Dating never took off. "Your experience would be similar to the one you had on Tinder ten years ago," Professor Taha Yasseri wrote to explain the failure. Another possible cause was fake accounts, due to the company's failure to verify the identity of users. Until last year it did not even check if users were over 18.
There are simply aren’t many real users. If the fake accounts are removed the app practically becomes empty and Facebook wants us to see many profiles to stay around the app a bit longer.
China's TikTok surpassed Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat in downloads in 2018. Seeing how the application was growing, especially among young people, Meta copied one of its star functions: Reels.
Thanks to the introduction of these vertical videos that last under a minute, the time users spent on Instagram increased by 24%, according to Zuckerberg's statements in April reported in Tech Crunch.
Part of this success, the report explains, is due to the fact that the artificial intelligence-based content recommendations on which Tik Tok "basically built its entire brand" were also imitated.
One of Elon Musk's most criticized moves when he took over X was the introduction of payment verification.
X Blue was followed by Meta Verified. Both grant check icons to the user who pays a monthly subscription, after verifying his or her identity. They also include exclusive benefits, such as more stickers on Facebook and longer video uploads on X.
Zuckerberg's latest development surpassed 100 million users in five days, making it the fastest growing platform in history.
The dispute could even go to court. X's legal team threatened to sue Meta for allegedly infringing its intellectual property rights.
It even accuses Zuckerberg of hiring former employees who recently worked for Musk, and who may have shared trade secrets.
Meta engineers are working on a new addition to Facebook's messaging system: "Roll Call."
This was revealed by specialist analyst Matt Navarra earlier this year. Navarra shared that the new feature would help users "share authentic moments with friends and family," i.e. BeReal's entire purpose.
⚡️FIRST LOOK: Meta is testing its BeReal-style ‘Roll Call’ feature in Messenger pic.twitter.com/UzMkRhba4K
— Matt Navarra (@MattNavarra) February 22, 2023
Like BeReal, Roll Call will ask users to send candid photos through both the front and rear cameras.
A winning strategy?
Facebook is the world's most popular social network, with nearly 3 billion global users. Meta also occupies third and fourth place in the ranking of most-used social networks, with WhatsApp and Instagram, each with 2 billion. And the seventh, thanks to the 931 million people who use Facebook Messenger. Meta has more than 7 billion users across all platforms.
One possible explanation for Meta's more or less uneven rise is the imitation of competitors' best practices, part of a strategy that some critics call "copy-acquire-kill." In short: if the competition launches a successful product, copy it. If you can't copy it, buy it. If you can't buy it, destroy it.
"Failure, or at the very least underwhelm, is the recurring theme with the Copy-Acquire-Kill playbook," opined media expert Stephen Moore.
And yet, time and time again, rather than put its unquestionably talented employees and teams to work designing innovative, groundbreaking features and products it wastes them on building subpar, minimal-effort clones in panicked efforts to keep people in the Meta ecosystem.
Moore argues that, over time, Meta lost its ability to innovate. It remains, now, as a "great acquirer," but a bad imitator and even worse innovator.
As evidence, he cites some of Meta's more strident failures, such as Lasso: a Tiktok-like application that was squashed in less than two years. Or Hobo, a Pinterest knockoff that didn't make it past four months. And some "few genuine winners," such as Marketplace, a Craigslist replica.
"Copying competing media is a very common strategy, not only in Meta," Francisco Albarello, professor and researcher in communication, told Voz Media. Although he points out that Meta's motto, at least when it was still Facebook, was "if you can't handle them, buy them."
Beyond commercial strategy, it has to do with a communication phenomenon that author Carlos Scolari calls "hybridization" or media mix. It is normal for a new medium to take successful elements from the previous medium. This is very, very common in the evolution of social media.
Albarello also believes that "this will continue to happen. … It's interesting at this time to see how the different platforms are evolving: how they borrow features from the competition, how they differentiate themselves, how they capture audience."
The expert predicts an "exhaustion," because there is "an excess of social networks" with particular "demands." Moore, for his part, takes direct aim at Threads:
Will it work? Probably not, unless Twitter (now X) completely folds and the door swings open for someone to suck up the market. I’d bet that whatever it turns out to be, it fails to deliver and ends up being jammed into Instagram and Facebook as a new feature.
To the courts
"If they [Instagram, Path and Foursquare, among other networks] grow to a large scale the could be very disruptive to us. ... I’m curious if we should consider going after one or two of them," Zuckerberg wrote in an internal email disclosed during his 2020 congressional appearance and picked up by The Verge. To the skepticism of his recipient-Facebook CFO David Ebersman, he insisted:
One way of looking at this is that what we’re really buying is time. Even if some new competitors springs up, buying Instagram, Path, Foursquare, etc now will give us a year or more to integrate their dynamics before anyone can get close to their scale again. Within that time, if we incorporate the social mechanics they were using, those new products won’t get much traction since we’ll already have their mechanics deployed at scale
In a subsequent post, Zuckerberg clarified that it should not be understood from his words that they would buy startups to avoid competition. That is, though, how members of the House Antitrust Subcommittee interpreted it.
Today, during @HouseJudiciary's big tech antitrust investigation hearing, I asked Mark Zuckerberg to explain how Facebook's 2012 purchase of Instagram—a direct competitor—was not a prime example of anti-competitive monopolization.
Zuckerberg's answer proved my point. pic.twitter.com/hgTxKEspFD
— Rep. Nadler (@RepJerryNadler) July 29, 2020
These proceedings led to a lawsuit against the company for anti-competitive practices. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and more than 40 states began to investigate the company for the purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp, among other irregularities to maintain its "monopolistic" position.