Even a year ago, my For You page was mostly made up of stuff you could only see on TikTok, whether it was Vine refugees making comedy shorts or song memes like “Here’s the boy “. This stuff is still on the platform, but it’s largely fallen off my For You page, replaced by Tim Robinson sketches and funny animal videos. An account reposts Derry Girls clips with captions about the royal family; another (aptly named ViralHog) licenses viral music videos from local news or Reddit feeds and then streams them to different platforms. Everything has the same warmed-up feeling. For many of these accounts, the goal is to produce enough content to build a following so they can flip the account into advertising mode for a quick price.
Of course, since it’s mostly content that’s already exploded elsewhere, there’s usually something compelling about it. It’s not really bad content, but it’s a bad sign for the platform. At first, TikTok was exciting because there was a culture that could only happen there. Now that the on-platform culture is overwhelmed by viral arbitrage, and the actual content is getting closer to what you see on every other network. As the platform gets bigger, it becomes more generic and there is less to distinguish from all the other mainstream social networks.
I call it the bootleg ratio
This dynamic is more important than TikTok. After following half a dozen platforms through this change, I’ve come to see it as a test for the health of the platform in general. I call it the bootleg ratio: the delicate balance between A) user-created content specifically for the platform and B) semi-anonymous accounts seeking audience influence. Any platform will have both, but as B begins to overtake A, users will have fewer and fewer reasons to visit and creators will have fewer and fewer reasons to post. In short, it’s a sign that the interesting things on the platform are starting to die down.
Instagram has been through several cycles of this, so this is a good example of the bootleg ratio at work. Once upon a time, Instagram was the birthplace of influencer culture and hustle, setting the earliest standards for sponsored posts and product placement. Not everything was a good culture, but it was something that really didn’t exist on other platforms, and people were drawn to Instagram to find out what was going on. When people posted their own content, it was shaped by that culture, created using Instagram’s tools, and tailored to Instagram users.
Instead of a space for creation, it has become a space for dissemination
This culture has had its ups and downs over the years, but nowadays, it’s hard to find anything resembling a unique Instagram aesthetic. Instead, we get something more generic: reposted tweets commenting on social justice issues or generic inspirational quotes. The bootleg ratio has swung towards reposting, and Instagram-specific content is increasingly crowded out.
The point isn’t that it’s aesthetically or morally wrong, but it represents a shift in how people relate to the platform. Instead of a space for creation, it has become a space for dissemination. Instead of a chance to say new things, it’s a group of people to talk to, a group that gets bigger (and therefore more lucrative) every time your follower count increases.
It’s good for the business in many ways. Ultimately, a social media business lives or dies on advertising, and advertisers typically pay for network effects. They share content outside the platform (“ads,” we call them) and hope the network boost will help them reach new audiences. Most business metrics (monthly active users, ad impressions) actively encourage the ViralHog effect, which is one of the reasons we see this change so reliably. It’s good for business! But for a user who has no interest in the business, the impression is a rising tide of scam, taking away all the interesting things on the platform.
In the absence of network effects, creators were able to cultivate narrow and specific audiences
There’s a better way to strike that balance. Platforms like Twitter and Reddit have maintained a stable user base and essentially unique culture for more than 15 years, even though they haven’t experienced the same global growth as Facebook and YouTube. There are still a few tweetdeckers trying to extract traffic from the Twitter network, but for the most part they have moved on to larger networks. What remains is often depressing and unpleasant, but it’s Twitter only. For people who love this stuff, there’s nowhere else to find it.
There are also social networks that have gone too far in the other direction: culturally alive platforms like Vine or Tumblr that face existential financial problems because they simply cannot monetize network effects. These platforms are culturally dynamic for the same reason that they struggle financially. With no network effects, creators were able to cultivate small, specific audiences and hone their work without the distorting effect of a viral audience. It’s an ideal environment for cultivating talent – the equivalent of a band building a local following before going big – until the broader platform economy brings it all down. If the ratio changes and the platform becomes important, these creators will jump ship or be overwhelmed by the rush of bootleg content. But as long as the platform remains small, they are free to refine their act and build an audience.
There is nothing final about any of these changes. Bootleg content is present in a certain proportion on every platform, and there is no magic number where it becomes impossible to overcome. YouTube has managed to pull itself out of the abyss on several occasions (largely thanks to direct grants to creators), although it is now retreating. If the platforms end up switching to bootlegs, it’s because the financial incentives are so strong. As an investor, you would rather have a stake in Instagram than Tumblr; as a creator, you prefer to build an audience on a bigger platform. Everything else feels like swimming upstream.
But in non-monetary terms, big platforms like Instagram and YouTube often feel like a wasteland — and increasingly their users are just repackaging content from TikTok or Twitter. The big platforms are losing the cultural game, even if they don’t have the metrics to measure it. And if they start paying a little attention to pirate content in their main streams, they might have a chance to turn things around.