Instagram has recently announced a brand new feature that is currently being rolled out across the Instagram platform – Reels. If you've recently updated your app, you might find that you already have it. Reels is Instagram's answer to TikTok, the wildly popular, yet increasingly controversial, app from Chinese company ByteDance.
With the incredible success TikTok has enjoyed over the past six months, it's no wonder that Instagram wants to get in on the action – and this isn't exactly the first time it has 'taken inspiration' from other rival apps. Anyone who was on Instagram in 2016 might remember when Stories, a blatant and unapologetic rip-off of Snapchat Stories, was introduced to the platform.
• Read more: TikTok lights (opens in new tab)
While this wasn't by any means the final nail in the coffin (this arguably came via Kylie Jenner (opens in new tab)), this did somewhat deflate the giant Snapchat bubble of popularity that had grown since its release in 2011. Instagram Stories are now one of the most popular aspects of the platform, affording followers a direct insight into the lives of their favorite influencers and celebrities.
So, is there any reason to believe why Reels would be any different? Well actually, yes. The world is a different place now than it was in 2016 (in many ways) and the digital landscape has evolved and changed. General dissatisfaction with Facebook (which owns Instagram) and frustration at the increasingly-difficult Instagram algorithm has left many users wishing for an entirely different platform altogether.
This unhappiness with Instagram and Facebook crystalized in March 2018, when there was a mass migration (opens in new tab) to social media app Vero. Unlike the other two apps, Vero had a chronological timeline in place (just as Facebook and Instagram used to). This meant that not only would you see every post from your followers, but you could also be sure that they would see yours as well.
The internet's brief flirtation with Vero sizzled out as soon as it became clear that the app's servers couldn't handle the large influx of users. People returned to Facebook and Instagram – but they were primed and ready for the 'next big thing'.
Enter TikTok – a wildly addictive platform that also uses an algorithm. However, where Facebook and Instagram's algorithm was the cause of complaints, TikTok's was what helped it explode. If you went back nine months (or perhaps just even pre-pandemic), TikTok was mostly known as a platform for kids doing silly dances. However, as more users tried out the app, they realized how well-tailored the algorithm was to their preferences – and how relatively easy it was for their own content to be discovered as well.
And this is what Instagram has to contend with – not short-form videos set to popular music, but an incredibly intelligent algorithm. At present, there doesn't seem to be a separate section for Reels. Instead, they seem to only be discoverable via main feed posts or Stories. While already-established creators will likely experiment with Reels, will it really help lift new talent into the spotlight like TikTok has?
However, there is one giant bump in the road that could prove very helpful to Instagram. After weeks of posturing, Trump has just signed an executive order (opens in new tab) banning TikTok over fears that TikTok is misusing user data (as opposed to Facebook, which doesn't misuse its user data at all (opens in new tab)…). If a buyer doesn't step in before 15 September, 2020, then the app will stop working in the US within the next month.
There are hopes that Microsoft will step in and buy the US arm of the app, but even if they do there's no guarantee that the magic algorithm that gave TikTok its success will stay the same under new leadership.
So, will Instagram Reels topple TikTok? Well, maybe it will. But perhaps not on its own merit…
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