Last week, Facebook announced that Instagram Stories had reached 200 million daily active users (DAUs).
People were quick to pounce on that significant number and declare that finally, Mark Zuckerberg had "officially crushed Snapchat" and Facebook and Instagram were winning some imaginary war. Many tweeted things like, "RIP Snap," "Is Snapchat already dead?," "Snapchat is dead fam. Instagram stories came and ended her."
But to compare Instagram Stories' 200M DAUs with Snapchat's total 161M daily active users is to equate apples with oranges. And, despite the fact that Instagram has made an effort to copy nearly all of Snapchat's signature features, treating the two apps as similar platforms to begin with is a fruitless exercise.
First, it's worth noting that Instagram Stories is not its own app. It's a feature bolted onto a pre-existing app that has already amassed more than 400M daily active users.
Second, when Instagram talks about Instagram Stories "daily active users", the company seems to mean "anyone who checks Instagram Stories on a daily basis."
Facebook won't explicitly confirm what goes into calculating this metric, but it seems to be that if Beyonce blasts out an Instagram story to her nearly 100M Instagram followers and you happen to click it while scrolling through your feed, you are counted Instagram Stories daily active user.
Facebook has previously faced criticism over lowering the threshold of what is considered engagement. On the company's flagship app a view only counts as three seconds and in September it was revealed that the company had "significantly inflated average video view times for years."
Sure, Snapchat similarly defines a daily active users as a person who opens the app once in a 24-hour-period, but consider the fact that the average snapchatter spends around half an hour on the app per day and 60% of users create content. Instagram is primarily used for browsing and the average user spends just 15 minutes per day within the app. It's highly unlikely that all 15 of those minutes are spent engaging with Instagram Stories.
Assuming that Instagram has grown from the 400M DAUs it had in February, that means that under half of Instagram's total daily user base engages with a feature that has been shoved into their feeds and promoted aggressively within the platform. This is far from an achievement — it's unsurprising.
And this is the challenge for Instagram: the company has also yet to prove that users are using Instagram specifically for stories. Snapchat has cultivated a fertile niche in consumer behavior as an addictive, essential destination, while, right now, Instagram Stories is just one more feature haphazardly incorporated into a fragmented app.
Tech observers are desperate to pit the two companies against each other, but part of the reason it's hard to even have a productive discussion about Instagram vs Snapchat, is that Snapchat breaks the mold of what so many consider a "social media company."
Instagram, like Twitter and other social platforms, is built on a broadcast model of one-to-many communication. It encourages public posting by default and incentivizes high follower counts and likes. This is great for users looking to gain mass exposure, like brands and influencers, but it doesn't stoke a high level of private and intentional communication with your closest friends.
On Snapchat, there is no incentive to get followers or build an overly curated persona. It's almost closer to a messaging platform than any of the public-facing social networks it's often compared to. But to equate Snapchat to WhatsApp, WeChat, or even Facebook Messenger is also off. None of those apps are focused on photo and video consumption and sharing (Though naturally, Facebook Messenger now has Stories).
Ultimately, social products aren't just defined by the features they offer, they are also shaped by the learned user behaviors and norms that evolve within them.