The More Things They Change, The More Digital Platforms Become The Same

YouTube is working on a plan to be more like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter. According to a report by VentureBeat, the video platform has been developing a new feature internally called Backstage that will allow users to post photos, links, text posts and other non-video content alongside their videos. The new content will resemble a Facebook Timeline, presented as a feed scrolling in reverse-chronological order on the user’s channel home page, but also appearing in subscribers’ feeds and notifications.

Backstage, or whatever it ends up being called, is expected to be rolled out later this year on select YouTube accounts.

The move to make using YouTube more like using Facebook seems only fair at this point given that Facebook has lately become more like YouTube. The social network has, with considerable success, moved aggressively to turn itself into a major platform for hosting and sharing user-created videos — once the near exclusive facebook_videoterrain of YouTube.

Facebook has also lately taken steps to become more like Twitter, launching Facebook Live to rival Periscope, while Twitter has tried to become more like YouTube by making video a bigger part of its offering.

A similar convergence is underway in the music streaming area. Pandora is reportedly in the final stages of negotiations with the record companies to launch an on-demand tier to its service, which would make it more like Spotify and Apple Music. Spotify, meanwhile, is acting more YouTube and even Netflix, adding original video to its mix of content.

It’s getting to where you can’t tell the players apart without a scorecard.

More to the point, it’s getting harder for digital platforms and services to differentiate themselves from each other. Music streaming services, which already share substantially the same catalog of content and now increasingly share the same business model, are trying, through the increasing use of  individual artist exclusives. Others have sought to make human vs. machine curation a point of differentiation.

Both strategies are likely to have limited long-term impact, however. As a recent study by MusicWatch showed, for instance, music fans as a group make little of the distinction.

“We set out to understand what’s really important to listeners, and it’s the essence of the song and the artist that wins, in the end,” MusicWatch managing director Russ Crupnick said. “There’s debate about human versus machine curation, about celebrity personalization, and about music sharing on social platforms, but ultimately listeners are really most concerned about whether a playlist provides song that they like and offers a touch of music discovery, too.”

Increasingly reliance on exclusives, meanwhile, threatens to turn the music streaming business into a version of the free agency market in sports, which could prove ruinous for services already struggling to turn a profit from streaming.

Facebook has tried to differentiate its live streaming service by paying celebrities and news organizations to create exclusive content for its platform. But that, too, is more a short-term attention-getter than a viable long-term strategy.

The fundamental reason for the difficulty of differentiating one platform or service for another is that they’re all ultimately competing for the same thing: users’ time, attention and engagement. The more of a user’s time and attention you capture, the more valuable the user, regardless of your particular monetization model.

That dynamic explains the drive to push into each others’ business. Why split your user’s attention with another service provider when you can code-up the same or similar service on your own platform?

In the attention economy, the only real point of differentiation is scale. The more of it you have, the more attention you’re likely to command. Given network effects, moreover, it tends to be self-reinforcing. The more of it you have, the easier it is to get.

The first time Google tried to take on Facebook, with the launch of Google +, it failed because it tried to launch a full-featured social network from a standing start. With Backstage, it’s leveraging the scale of  user attention YouTube attracts to introduce elements of social networking — a strategy that’s likely to prove more effective.

The bigger long-term question for consumer-facing digital platforms is not which additional features and services to add but how far anti-trust authorities will let them go in their pursuit of scale.

The logical endpoint to the drive for scale is market power, which can become problematic when abused. Antitrust authorities in the EU and other countries have already begun to crack down on Amazon, Apple, Google and others for allegedly abusing their market power, while policymakers in the U.S. have begun to raise similar concerns.

And that certainly seems to have the platforms’ attention.