When Facebook ushered in the era of social media, the core insight was that by creating a space for us and our friends online, we would be motivated to share more. What we shared in the beginning was predominantly text because our phone cameras produced low-quality photos. Instagram changed all of that when they introduced filters that dramatically improved the quality of everyone’s photos . After Instagram won the war for photos, the next natural front of sharing was videos.
Going from sharing photos to videos was a giant step because composing an interesting story in video was significantly harder. Remember SocialCam? In 2011, we thought simply applying filters to videos and adding generic soundtracks would make videos more interesting. That just wasn’t the case.
A couple years later in 2013, Vine launched taking a page from Twitter by limiting videos to six seconds. The time constraint unleashed a ton of creativity on the platform, turning Vine into a cultural sensation. However, while six seconds was an easier requirement, it became obvious quickly that only the most talented creators like King Bach and Nash Grier were able to make interesting videos consistently. The dynamics on Vine became more like YouTube where we watched videos from a small number of creators, and like on YouTube, there was no reason to connect with our friends because our friends weren’t going to post anything interesting.
During this time, Snapchat became a popular social network because of the ephemeral messages, including photos and videos. They also pioneered the 24-hour “Stories” format that further reduced the pressure of sharing anything more broadly. However, it wasn’t until 2015 when Snapchat introduced Lenses when video social took a giant leap.
Lenses dramatically improved the quality of videos by offering users a “template” that eliminated the need for creativity. 95% of the story is told already in the animated effect, so all the users needed to do was to add their face to the story. Regular users started sharing videos of themselves interacting with various Lenses because they’re guaranteed to be entertaining .
The problem with Lenses though is that they get old after a while, so in order to fuel growth, Snap needs to continuously create new ones and give users fresh templates of stories to tell. At around this time, a fellow startup in LA called Musical.ly discovered yet another compelling template for video— lip-syncs to popular music. Like Snapchat Lenses, the 15-second song clips told the majority of the story, so the users simply had to show themselves lip-syncing to complete the story. With a little bit more originality, users can “remix” by adding dances or comedy routines. Remixing a template is much easier just like how it’s easier to do a clever “quote Tweet” on Twitter than coming up with a funny original Tweet. In 2017, Musical.ly became TikTok and the lip-syncing template came to be known as “challenges” set to music or other sounds.
Unlike Snapchat, TikTok is not a traditional social network organized around friends. Instead, it’s organized by an algorithm to show you videos of your favorite challenges. That means when a user posts a video, the audience is not their small group of friends, but the global audience of TikTok users on the “For You” page. Without social pressure and with the potential to be seen, 55% of TikTok users have uploaded a video, and many have experienced 15 seconds of fame. With more people posting videos, new challenges get invented organically, which then becomes new templates for everyone else to follow in a virtuous cycle. While many challenges interact with TikTok’s version of Lenses called Effects, TikTok’s ability to make new Effects is a much smaller bottleneck to the network’s growth compared to Snapchat’s ability to make new Lenses.
And that wraps up our decade of figuring out video social.
Questions going into this decade
Snap’s vision to have the camera be the focal point of our social lives is in the process of being realized, except it’s shared by Instagram and TikTok. Snap also benefits from this competition. Already, TikTok has inspired Snapchat to create Lens Challenges of their own.
As photos and videos become the primary means of communication and self-expression, a vibrant third-party ecosystem will spring up, and this time that third party will include lots of creative individuals (not just companies) creating Lenses and Effects for the community.
Conventional wisdom might say that TikTok is unsustainable because it doesn’t have a social graph. It’s also possible that they can get regulated, be forced to pay the music industry more royalties or get caught stuffing their numbers and fall out of favor . However, if they manage to keep the fun going and figure out how to monetize, especially without total reliance on advertising, we may see new possibilities for others to emulate.
The next frontier seems to be audio. With Apple expected to sell more than 85M AirPods this year in addition to the 100M units already sold, will it take us another decade to figure out audio social? What kind of “template” will we discover to unlock social audio sharing? We can probably get clues from the podcasting world where lots of creators have been experimenting with how to make high-quality audio without radio-quality talent.
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This essay was about the evolution of video social. If you liked it you might like my essay “The Arc of Social,” which talks about how graphs and contexts rule social networks and how they’ve evolved.
I’m still just a lurker on TikTok. To learn more about TikTok you gotta read my friend Matt Schlict’s “The Complete Beginner’s Guide to TikTok.”
 When our phone cameras got better, we stopped using filters.
 Vine’s six-second limit, Instagram’s boomerangs and time-lapses, etc. can all be considered “templates” but lenses struck the right balance in being the most entertaining, doing most of the work for users, and leaving enough room for creativity.