Instagram on copying Snapchat: “This is the way the tech industry works”

“I think it would frankly be silly of us if we were to say ‘Oh, see that good idea over there that’s actually fulfilling a need people have to share more moments of their life? Because one person did that we can’t even go near that idea.’” 

That’s Instagram’s VP of Product Kevin Weil’s perspective about cloning Snapchat. He’s the man in charge of bringing Snap CEO Evan Spiegel’s vision to a much larger audience, reforging his features for the mainstream, and then taking Instagram a step further.

But rather than showing guilt, remorse, or reluctance about copying what’s worked for Snap, he sees it as a foregone conclusion — the inevitable march of progress where you either step in line or get left behind.

On stage today at TechCrunch Disrupt NY, I asked him whether he agrees with his own CEO Kevin Systrom, who told me last year that “They deserve all the credit” in reference to Snapchat inventing Stories. His response:

Essentially, the goal is making Instagram more useful to its users, driving its mission to bring people closer together. Duplication as a justified means to an end. “It’s about the problem you’re solving,” Weil says.

You can watch the whole panel here. We start discussing competition with Snap at 4:08.

The fact is that most of apps we use each day are based off the building blocks of the products that came before. If social apps didn’t copy each other, there’d only be one app with a feed, one with hashtags, one with image filters, one with user profiles, or one with instant messaging.

Weil offers the analogy that “Pixar was the first to do computer animated films but I think we’re all better because of folks like Dreamworks that are also bringing great films.”

The more complex question than why Instagram copied Snapchat Stories (to provide value to its users), or whether it’s right for Instagram’s business (ads between Stories could earn Instagram a lot of money), is whether this kind of copying is honorable — or even sustainable.

When asked, Weil pushed back about whether strategy can be judged on this scale. “I don’t think there’s an honor to it. I guess that’s not a word that I’d ascribe to it.”

Instagram’s butterfly crown filter (left) vs Snapchat’s flower crown filter (right)

There is an argument that Instagram has a duty to serve its users and that tech’s competitive environment necessitates Instagram’s copying. Instagram Stories has 200 million users each day, so it’s clearly making some people happy, and that might be enough.

“We are clearly building something that people care about and that’s what matters” Weil concludes. “It’s a big industry, there’s going to be multiple successful players across the entire industry so it’s not about one person going down for us. It’s about ‘are we building the right thing that adds value to people’s lives?’”

Silicon Valley prides itself on innovation, but really spends most of its time on rapid incremental iteration. If a tech giant like Facebook can iterate faster than a startup can on its own idea, that might just be “the way the tech industry works.” Though if cloning by tech giants makes new startups even riskier, they might not get funded, and one day, there might be no one left to copy.







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