February 2021

Fleets vs. Reels

And Other Ways That Formats Get Passed Around

Do you remember using Snapchat before Instagram stories  replaced it? On Snapchat, you’d post a story of your friend eating a sandwich, and it’d be gone in 24 hours. The app is meant for that type of posting. Over the years, various forms of social media posts have been invented, then borrowed and reinvented many times.

All the archetypes of social media posting — like the YouTube video, the 140-character tweet, the hashtag, the Vine, etc. — were invented for our disposal, new ways of communicating and expressing ourselves conceived and featured across all the different apps spread around the app store, each in their own little corner for us to download. There’s the Facebook post, the TikTok Duet, and, of course, the Snapchat story. But now, Instagram Stories? Slowly, these features are moving to the same home.

You’d think the Stories feature would’ve been trademarked. When Instagram first came out with its Stories feature for its platform in August 2016, it seemed like something shady was going on. It felt like Instagram was cheating. The CEO at the time, and one of its original founders, Kevin Systrom, even admitted in an interview with TechCrunch that Snapchat deserved “all the credit.”

Consequences felt imminent for the platform. People wondered why they should even support the feature. Why should they engage with this blatant rip-off? But time would tell that users didn’t really care. In the beginning, only a couple posted, but slowly, Insta Stories became commonplace. In 2021, the Stories aspect of Instagram is synonymous with its brand, and Snapchat seems more irrelevant because of it.

This wasn’t the first time Instagram borrowed from Snapchat. In the early days of both apps, they were each other's largest competitors from the start. Instagram’s first move to steal engagement from Snapchat happened when the app incorporated the direct messaging feature in 2013. For most, it's hard to conceptualize Instagram without DMs, but the move was originally made to compete with messaging apps like Snapchat, and similar to how stories are now, it’s hard to imagine Instagram without them.

Other borrowed features have been streamlined into Instagram from other platforms. Take Boomerang for example, a feature released by Instagram in 2015 originally marketed as its own off-shoot app. Boomerang was a direct attempt to wipe out a smaller competitor called Phhhoto. This oddly named platform originally started the “moving-image” craze that came around the same time Apple released its Live Photos feature in 2015. The whole “craze” that seemed to be “untouched” was really just a glorified way to talk about a platform made of GIFs created by the specific camera of the app. And that’s what Phhhoto was, a GIF-sharing platform that lets users create loops using the app’s special camera with its own aesthetic effects.

You might recognize this description as Boomerang if you remember its release, which was a blatant move by Instagram to dominate the small market. Even the co-founder of Phhhoto, Champ Bennett, knew Kevin Systrom and said in a TechCrunch interview that the Instagram product team was “quietly using Phhhoto almost a year before Boomerang was released.”

The app went bankrupt in 2017, blaming Instagram for its downfall. It wasn’t Boomerang the app that killed Phhhoto. Instagram realized instead to integrate the feature into its mechanics and advertisements of the new Stories feature in 2016, giving users a new way to create content; making the trek to other apps obsolete. What Phhhoto offered Instagram now offered, and people didn’t even have to go back out to their home screen.

Instagram’s done this again and again with other things since, like adding IGTV in 2018 to compete with YouTube and most recently adding the Reels feature to compete with their now main competitor, TikTok. Higher-ups at Instagram, such as the current head underneath Zuckerberg, Adam Mosseri, will talk about these adoptions in a similar fashion, equating them to “formats” that are necessary to be integrated for survival. Instagram can then take these formats and reimagine them, providing them in conversation with all the other formats on their app. Something as fundamental as the hashtag is even a format. Originally, it was borrowed by Instagram in 2011 from Twitter, but now no one thinks of Twitter as synonymous with “the hashtag” or of Instagram as the “stealer” of it, but rather, the hashtag is just synonymous with all of social media posting.

This isn’t to say that IGTV has killed YouTube or that Reels will even kill TikTok, but many platforms have now adopted the Stories format other than Instagram, including YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, and now, even Twitter. Last month, Jack Dorsey and his team added the Fleets feature to their platform following the same visual language as their predecessors; the profile pic bubbles hovering at the top of the feed, surrounded by blue circles, outlining a new update. Like Instagram and Snapchat, Fleets only last 24 hours and a user can see exactly who has viewed them. No one can like or retweet them. They’re posted into the void, only to be reacted to through a direct message.

But are people using it? As of now, not really. In surveys released by Variety at the end of November last year, 60 percent of Twitter users said they hadn’t even heard of the feature. Perhaps more damaging, only 6 percent of voters said they’d even viewed, let alone posted a Fleet.

But it’s important to note that Fleets were only introduced a week and a half before this survey, so it might be true that some surveyed had not updated to the latest version, or maybe they just failed to notice the faces outlined in blue at the top of their feed. Either way, the skepticism is showing regardless. When asked why they weren’t Fleeting, 50 percent of them said they “don’t want to post that kind of content on Twitter.”

So are they telling the truth? They might be for now, but Instagram has shown how the Stories format can become seamless in the long run, as they followed a similar timeline to what Twitter is currently trying. Early statistics of Instagram Story usage, provided by Statista.com, show the numbers are almost identical. Two weeks after its release in August of 2016, 60 percent of Instagram users didn’t engage with stories at all.

It’s been four years since then, and Stories have made a lasting impact. So, is it really hard to bet on Fleets? Twitter has made them obvious for users on the home page, in the same way Instagram did, and if they’re right in everyone’s faces, they’re bound to be engaged with. Twitter people are their own community, many of whom have their largest following on it across all their apps. Now, they can post stories for their audience rather than linking them to the other app.

Twitter's already well-established, and the user base has been growing even before Instagram’s. The addition of any format onto its platform will most likely become synonymous with its brand in the long run. Skeptical at first, people will begin to warm up to the idea of Fleets, as long as others post them, and finally, they’ll post one for themself.

They might be late on the whole movement in general, but Twitter has created a new take on the format, simplifying the Fleet to only text, camera roll, capture, and video. A user can’t share links, post the time and location or even create a poll. All of these features Instagram took directly from Snapchat, but in Twitter fashion under Jack Dorsey’s philosophy, the format of Fleets is simple and straight-forward, like the tweet itself.

In a video released by WIRED in January, Dorsey acts as “Twitter Support,” answering people’s questions on the website. He recalls back to Twitter’s origins as a mimic of SMS texting; how the tweet is limited in characters and uneditable. He found that the format naturally inspired creatives, limited to find beauty in brevity. During the whole interview, he seems stiff but loose, always ending his answers with a small quip that’s genuine.

Now imagine Zuckerberg in a WIRED video, struggling for jokes about smoked meat in his backyard. I mean Dorsey has a nose ring! And he wears Rick Owens? Meanwhile, Mark’s on the surfboard again making sure his face doesn’t peel.

When one app seems to want to have all the traffic, infiltrating start-ups, grabbing at competition that doesn’t even feel like their own, it leads to some confusing endeavors (like how Instagram is trying to become a shopping app). They seem to have garnered a certain sense of vibrato when it comes to pushing things on us, making their app larger with features every year. They make it so we’re accidentally pressing Reels all the time now. The “Watch More Reels” button pops up and the short video just repeats itself, as the feed keeps scrolling on to the next Reel forever.

In the long run, whether to choose Fleets or Reels as the more effective reintegration in social media posting, it’s probably safe to say that they’ll both prosper. Instagram has a lot of features now, and Twitter is just expanding into more of them. It’s really a question of whether apps should function separately, in their own spheres, with their own formats, or if there are formats essential to social media posting that should be inherent in all of them.

As of now though, people seem to be more annoyed with Reels than Fleets. Maybe it’s just Instagram’s reputation. Fleets are just there, at the top of Twitter like all the other websites that have them, and if Twitter users start to post them, like how Instagrammers adopted Stories, they might be synonymous with people’s idea of Twitter in four years’ time. It’s a debate of who to support really. Which app do you want to eliminate all apps?

click here to read this article in the February 2021 Meme Insider issue.