Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or so they say. For pioneering app developers, however, the saying probably inspires less appreciation. You know the drill. Every couple years, a new and exciting content format comes along, gets reported on ad nauseam, and is ultimately implemented — poorly — in every app on your phone. This year, that feature is “drop-in audio,” a voice-only group chat made popular by Clubhouse. This social voice experiment has sparked plenty of discussion among investors and influencers alike, and has already made more than enough noise to inspire clones in all your favorite applications.
Last year saw a veritable surge of new TikTok-style short-form-video features, perhaps most notably in Instagram’s Reels, which enjoyed a lukewarm reception at best. Not long before that, Snapchat’s disappearing Stories proliferated in everything from Instagram to YouTube to dating apps, and even more unsocial apps like Spotify and Airbnb (neither of which maintained the feature beyond initial tests, thankfully).
FOMO strikes again
Group chat isn’t a novel concept by itself, but gathering notable industry personalities and encouraging regular people to join in with them to discuss specific topics is new. And when you have celebrities and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Kevin Hart, and Tiffany Haddish joining the conversation, it’s plainly impossible to ignore. So far, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Slack, Discord, and even Spotify have either launched or announced their own plans to release competing services to Clubhouse. While not all are identical, the connecting thread is a blatant attempt to cash in on the new feature, which begs the question — why?
Surely, at least one or two of the above-mentioned apps had you groaning at the thought, so what’s in it for them? While Twitter’s hastily implemented Spaces has thus far proved distinctly propitious, it’s a bit harder to argue that there are droves of people chomping at the bit to sound off in a group chat on, say, LinkedIn.
No one is chomping at the bit to sound off in a group chat on LinkedIn.
It’s possible the initial launch would experience a promising flood of engagement, especially if rolled out strategically via a beta, or by partnering with key media personalities. But how long can that excitement last? Four years following the launch of Facebook stories, the feature is little more than a checkbox you sometimes tap when otherwise posting to Instagram. Snapchat’s Spotlight feature is a TikTok ripoff buried so far below the main interface you’d be forgiven for not even noticing it. So, again, why?
Maybe these companies feel that if they simply ignore the tide, they’ll be seen as outdated by users, or worse, financiers. The whims of the internet at large are sweeping and swift, and like a good meme, one might presume that if you try to get in on the fun too late, you risk alienating your audience and missing out on your piece of the proverbial pie.
Like many hurried business decisions, this perspective is recklessly shortsighted, bordering on harmful. The more you pile extraneous features on top of your user interface, the less clear the purpose of your app becomes. Over time, if you aren’t careful, this could render the app difficult to navigate and unenjoyable to use.
For a prime example of this, we need look no further than the originator of the most copied app feature of the modern era: Stories. Snapchat started out with a clear direction. Message your friends photos and text, or share images that disappeared after 24 hours. Nothing was permanent, and at least at first, it was only intended for a small, intimate audience, so you didn’t need to stress so much over the quality of the content.
For a prime example of this, we need look no further than Snapchat.
With pressure from Instagram, Snapchat added the ability to layer filters, stickers, locations, and the like over your photos. Later, the ability to share and track the location of friends was added, similar to Apple’s Find My Friends app, but usable on your mobile operating system of choice. At some point, probably to maintain profitability, it added the Discover section, an undeniably hot mess of largely trashy clickbait publications and aggressive advertisements. (Is this a good time to tell you we’re on Snapchat?) This particular feature necessitated an entire UI overhaul, and one that was almost universally disliked.
And finally, its newest foray into short-form content with Spotlight is so ill-conceived and undermarketed, it’s as though it was created for the express purpose of ticking a box after an intern at a design meeting asked casually, “What if, like, Tiktok, but on Snapchat?” One might even argue that the reason the app remains exceedingly popular among Gen Z audiences is because of its confusing interface, rather than in spite of it, offering a unique refuge far from the prying eyes of parents and other adults.
None of this is to assert that developers of existing app mainstays should be denied the right to experiment. In fact, that experimentation often eventually results in we, the users, enjoying the fruits of fierce competition. Nevertheless, as Clubhouse’s drop-in audio evolves within its own app and elsewhere, developers and stakeholders would do well to make sure they’re adding it for a clear and practical reason, and not because of FOMO.