Conventional wisdom suggests timing is everything, but money and power certainly sway things as well. Being first only matters until it doesn't.
This is the case in the world of social media, at least, where volatility, control and varying degrees of scrambling rule the day. It's an industry in which copycatting might be flattering if it weren't so rampant and seemingly impossible to avoid.
The big social platforms each carved out their unique niches thanks to defining features, characteristics or dominant behaviors, and there will always be crossover — but the overlap is often by design and driven by fear.
Today, it's rare for an established social platform to introduce something genuinely new or innovative. More often than not the major players are at least a couple of steps behind the curve, and they're frequently weighing the tried and true options of locking out, acquiring or otherwise squashing competing services.
Twitter swallows Periscope, stifles Meerkat
The past five weeks demonstrate how quickly things can change in social media. The concept of live streaming video on social sites wasn't even a serious thought, or a realistic desire, until last month. Now people apparently can't get enough of it.
It started at South by Southwest, where Meerkat, an app that lets you broadcast live video streams and share them on social sites, seemed destined to be the next breakout hit, based on its steady stream of media coverage. The attention around Meerkat didn't go unnoticed by Twitter, which was sharpening its knives behind the scenes.
First, Twitter cut off Meerkat for exceeding API request limits, and the service was soon blocked from Twitter's social graph as well. Then, on the same day Meerkat raised $14 million in new funding, Twitter launched Periscope, a strikingly similar app built by a company it acquired only a month prior.
"Twitter probably fast tracked things internally quite a bit to get their own product out into the marketplace," says Carmen Sutter, social product manager, Adobe.
Twitter did not develop Periscope, or the popular video service Vine, but it acquired both companies and their apps before they were publicly released. So for all intents and purposes, Twitter has always controlled both apps.
Acquisitions, and the evolution of social
Twitter's Vine and Periscope acquisitions came from a position of strength, rather than one of weakness. Indeed, Twitter's decision to acquire Periscope early on seems par for the course, and it's hard to imagine what the state of live streaming would look like if Twitter hadn't been prepared for Meerkat.
Users still tend to think of social platforms in terms of single features, and they identify services with their specific individual strengths. "As much as it is about popularity and buzz, it is features that you're known for," says Adam Kleinberg, CEO of the interactive agency Traction.
For example Snapchat or one of the other popular platforms may be next to integrate live streaming, but the new feature won't supplant the more defining strength that remains at the forefront of people's minds, according to Kleinberg, who believes live streaming has legs, but says it won't be the next big thing.
"Social media will always have this evolving landscape so that you cover simple ways to communicate, but it's going to be the rarer ones that are going to be the breakout hits," says Kleinberg.
Just as quickly as it rose into the online collective consciousness, Meerkat suffered a dramatic fall from grace after Periscope launched, and the two apps continue to move like trains on the same track but heading in opposite directions.
"The Meerkat phenomenon definitely helped Periscope," says Adobe's Sutter. Periscope also benefits from some unique features that aren't available to Meerkat users, including the ability to watch previously recorded broadcasts and a more Snapchat-like approach to disappearing or short-lived content.
Video is a promise left unfulfilled
Vine and Instagram both created initial buzz around their social video functionality, but the early excitement quickly waned, just as it has for Meerkat, Sutter says.
"Video hasn't quite jumped to the use that we might've expected," she says. "I see video obviously taking a broader part of the Facebook experience, but I don't think Vine has broken out separately like that. I don't feel like Instagram has done a lot for that yet."
Traction's Kleinberg points out that the same basic process — innovate, differentiate, automate and monetize — plays itself out in every industry. "The pace of change is so fast when you're talking about a feature in software so we focus on it more in social media," he says. "But the reality is that happens in every industry."
One thing almost everyone agrees on is the tough slog Meerkat faces now that Twitter and its hype machine are working overtime on video.
Can Twitter dominate social video?
"Twitter really jumped in on this at the right time [and] was able to extend its power behind it and push out any would-be competitors," says Sutter. "It's probably one of the smartest things Twitter has done for a long time to be honest."
Sutter compares the state of social video to the early battle between Foursquare, Gowalla and others for prime positioning among the location-based check-in apps. "Not many apps came into that space afterwards because there's just not room enough for all of them," she says.
Companies such as Meerkat can try to raise more funding, but more pressing questions still exist, according to Sutter:. "Will their server load hold up under the demand? Can they grow to the extent and build out the futures something owned by Twitter can? The answer's most likely no."