Why our ageing social networks may need TikTok


It was billed as a discussion about TikTok but Web Summit's night-time talk soon turned into a whirlwind brainstorm about the social media industry in general, featuring fast-talking US entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk and TikTok vice president Blake Chandlee, a former exec at Facebook.

It's easy to imagine all of these big platforms fiercely competing against each other but actually their real rivals and threats lie further afield.

Mr Chandlee refused to say much about Tiktok's current fight for survival in the US. The firm is having "daily dialogues" with the current administration - which is still under the leadership of Donald Trump - he said.

It was President Trump who issued a stark ultimatum to TikTok's parent company ByteDance earlier this year: allow TikTok to be bought by a US company or face a ban. The deadline has been extended and is now extremely imminent - 4 December.

But even if the politics goes their way, other, more familiar sharks are circling TikTok. Facebook's Instagram Reels, which launched in August, is unapologetically chasing TikTok's winning formula of quirky short-form video, just like its Stories feature targeted Snapchat's.

However members of social networks are seemingly more loyal than you or even they may think - the older platforms have all survived their own scandals and lived to tell the tale.

"Instagram is old," said Gary Vaynerchuk. (it has just had its 10th birthday).

"Snapchat (2011) has not disappeared. LinkedIn (2003) spent a decade as a utility and then converted to a social network. I would argue there has not been movement."

This sparked some consternation in the comments section alongside this virtual panel, as some of the 2,000 attendees among us debated whether Snapchat had indeed disappeared from our own respective circles - but nonetheless, by comparison TikTok (2016) ) is very much the new kid on the block.

Will we still be talking about it in 10 years time? The message was clear, it will have to evolve to survive.

"You will get disrupted if you don't disrupt," said Blake Chandlee.

"We're constantly trying to figure out how to disrupt ourselves."

Disrupt, by the way, is Silicon Valley speak for re-invent (it can also mean exploding onto the scene of an already established industry, see for example ride-sharing apps and taxis).

'Potential competitor'

Mr Chandlee politely described Instagram Reels as "a potential competitor" but also referenced Google Plus, which was Google's attempt to muscle in on Facebook back in 2011. It failed, and shut down in 2019.

Facebook, after all, has stopped short of launching a stand-alone app to rival Tiktok - which Gary Vaynerchuk declared would be "a monster" for the young firm.

Perhaps one reason it hasn't is because ultimately it's not about whether Reels will kill Tiktok, or TikTok will kill Snapchat, or even historically how Twitter killed Vine.

In fact it's a mistake to think of all the social networks as being in competition with each other at all, said Gary Vaynerchuk.

"They're competing against the Playstation 5, Netflix, The New York Times..." he said - everything else that vies for people's attention.

"We enjoy the battle of the game but if you take a step back, Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat (and co) still have more landgrab to go around other platforms."

And with the looming shadow of tougher regulation for the sector in both in the US and in Europe, these brands might find themselves forced stick even more closely together.

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