Unravelling Innovation: Silicon Valley's Thread of Copycat Culture

12 July 2023

The tech industry is caught in a repetitive loop. 

Silicon Valley, the birthplace of the world’s technological innovation, has gradually become a collection of cannibalised ideas in search of user needs. Threads is the latest example in a long list of copycat launches that demonstrates just how far the industry has drifted from its roots in user-centric innovation.

Some might view the trend of copying competitors’ features as a welcome move towards standardising user experiences. But there’s a big difference between universal implementations of patterns like hamburger menus that provide familiarity and intuitiveness and a rampant replication of features. 

Design thinking is about understanding and meeting user needs in a way that's empathetic, innovative, and specific to the situation. However, copying features from other platforms that work well ignores the unique needs and situations of users. It ignores the basic requirement for experiences to be memorable and meaningful if they are to resonate with the people using them.

On further reflection, it becomes obvious that the world's biggest design organisations are driven by commercial protectionism and competition, more than they are by understanding the world around them and creating relevant products. 

It’s like the world's most expensive game of musical chairs, with each company trying to claim the last seat before the music stops. Quite simply, that’s because the commercial success of platforms like Twitter and Facebook rests on maintaining and monetising huge user bases - the model only works at a massive scale. 

So, when any new platform or format takes off, the commercial threat is immediate. Any decline in active users, or any increase in user churn is immediately felt in the bottom line and the share price, so the instinct is to plug the hole and fast.


We've seen the response many times before.

There's a long list of examples of Twitter and Facebook copying rivals. Remember Fleets? Twitter's attempt at capturing the success of Snapchat's Stories (Instagram didn't even bother to change the name of Stories when they implemented the same feature). Or Instagram Reels? Facebook's response to the success and popularity of TikTok's short-form video content. 

But, perhaps the most egregious example was Twitter's acquisition of Vine. Fearful of losing relevance to short-form video content, they bought out the competition and then failed to make any meaningful improvements to the platform, before pulling it completely in 2017.

But the issue here isn't just a disregard for innovation that really moves the dial, it's a failure to design with purpose. Short-termist and preoccupied with fending off threats, they've not stopped to ask: What do our users actually need? 

In a system where companies can make profits running to tens of billions simply by maintaining the status quo, a see-what-sticks, feature parity approach to innovation is inevitable. We’ve helped create companies that are too big to take risks. They have grown so dependent on monetising eyeballs, and therefore maintaining huge, ring-fenced user bases, that true innovation - at least within the core platform - is a threat in its own right. 

Why wouldn't they take the path of least resistance? Understanding and addressing user needs is a complex, intensive and expensive process. It requires substantial investments in research, ideation, prototyping, and testing. Despite making huge research and development investments in areas like the metaverse and AI, when it comes to the core platform, copying a proven feature can be done much more quickly and cheaply. It's a shortcut to staying relevant in a competitive industry that values speed above all else.


But risk is a necessary ingredient for innovation.

After all, if an idea is guaranteed to work, it's probably not very innovative. Think of any groundbreaking product or service, and you'll find risk. Whether it was Apple's first iPhone, which was a huge bet, or SpaceX's first attempt at private space travel, the most innovative ideas usually involve significant risk.

Meanwhile, the relentless and blatant cannibalisation of features by companies like Twitter and Facebook is gradually diminishing their credibility in the eyes of the very people they're meant to serve. 

The short-term survival strategy may seem smart to these companies, but it is not going unnoticed by their audience. They have a keen eye for originality and can spot a copycat feature from a mile away. When they see a platform that was once a leader playing catch-up, it shows that they’re more focused on competing with other companies than creating value for their audience.

Users want to feel that they're part of a platform that respects their intelligence, listens to their needs, and is genuinely committed to innovating on their behalf. Companies that put imitation ahead of innovation risk not only their reputation but the trust and loyalty of their users.

In the long run, this will lead to a backlash against these tech giants, with users choosing more innovative, authentic alternatives. It's time for these big companies to take note (but don’t hold your breath).

Sam Steele