Even a year ago, my For You page was mostly stuff you’d only see on TikTok, whether it was Vine Refugees making comedy shorts or song memes like “Here’s a Boy.” That stuff is still on the platform, but it’s pretty much dropped off your page for me, replaced by Tim Robinson sketches and funny animal videos. Repost an account Derry Girls captioned clips about the royal family; Another (aptly named ViralHog) licenses viral video clips from local news or Reddit threads and expands them onto various platforms. Everything has the same warm feeling. For most of these accounts, the goal is to get enough content to build a following so they can flip the account into advertising mode for a quick buck.
Of course, since it’s mostly content that’s already been ignored elsewhere, there’s usually something compelling about it. It’s not really bad content, but it’s an ominous sign for the platform. First, TikTok is exciting because there is a culture that only happens there. Now on-platform culture is saturated with viral arbitrage and original content is closer to what you see on every other network. As the platform gets bigger, it becomes more generic and less distinguishable from every other mass-market social network.
I call it the bootleg ratio
This dynamic is bigger than just TikTok. After following half a dozen platforms through this shift, I’ve come to see it as a test of platform health in general. I call this the bootleg ratio: a delicate balance between A) content created by users specifically for the platform and B) semi-anonymous clout-chasing accounts that draft audiences. Any platform can have both, but as B starts 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 about the platform are dying out.
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 starting point for influencer and hustle culture, setting the initial norms around sponsored posts and product placement. It’s not all good culture, but it’s something that’s virtually absent on other platforms, and people gravitate to Instagram to see what’s going on. When people post their own content, it’s created by that culture — made using Instagram tools and tailored to Instagram users.
Instead of creation, it has become a space for distribution
That culture has had its ups and downs over the years, but until now, it’s hard to find anything that looks like a unique Instagram aesthetic. Instead, we get something more generic: reposted tweets commenting on social justice issues or simple inspirational quotes. The bootleg ratio has tipped towards reposting, and content exclusive to Instagram has become crowded.
It’s not that it’s aesthetically or morally bad, but it represents a shift in how people relate to the platform. Instead of creation, it has become a space for distribution. Besides the opportunity to say new things, it’s a group of people to talk to a larger (and therefore more profitable) group whenever your follower count grows.
This benefits the business in many ways. Ultimately, a social media company lives or dies by advertising, and advertisers typically pay for network effects. They’re sharing content from outside the platform (“ads,” we call them) and hope the network boost will help them reach new audiences. Most of the business metrics (monthly active users, ad impressions) are actively promoting the ViralHog effect, which is one of the reasons why we see this change so reliably. It’s good for business! But for the consumer who has no stake in the business, there is a perception of a rising tide of fraud that washes away all the interesting things about the platform.
Without any network effects, creators were able to grow small, specific audiences
There is a better way to achieve this balance. Platforms like Twitter and Reddit have had a steady user base for over 15 years and a very unique culture — even though they haven’t seen the world-consuming growth of Facebook and YouTube. There are still some Tweetdeckers trying to siphon traffic off the Twitter network, but for the most part, they’ve moved on to the larger networks. The rest are often depressing and unpleasant, but this is Twitter in particular. For people into that kind of work, there’s nowhere else to find it.
There are also social networks that have gone too far in the other direction: culturally powerful platforms like Vine or Tumblr face existential economic problems because they cannot pay for network effects. These platforms are culturally powerful for the same reason they are struggling financially. Without network effects, creators were able to grow small, specific audiences and hone their work without the distorting effect of a viral audience. It’s a great environment for developing talent — the equivalent of a band building a local following until big platform economics undercut the whole thing. If the ratio changes and the platform is largely broken, those creators will either jump ship or be overwhelmed by the rush of bootleg content. But as long as the platform is small, they’re free to hone their work and build a following.
Nothing is final about any of these shifts. Every platform has some proportion of bootleg content, and there’s no magic number that makes it impossible to beat. Although YouTube has now pulled back (mostly through direct subsidies to creators) it has successfully pulled back from the brink at times. If platforms turn to bootlegs, it’s because the financial incentives are so strong. As an investor, you own a stake in Instagram rather than Tumblr; As a creator, you want to grow an audience on a bigger platform. Something else seems to swim upwards.
But in non-financial terms, major platforms like Instagram and YouTube often feel like wastelands — and mostly, their users are repackaging content from TikTok or Twitter. The big platforms are missing out on the lack of metrics to measure the cultural game. And if they start paying a little more attention to the bootleg content portion of their main feeds, they have a chance to turn things around.