Aug 5, 2020 - Technology

Facebook launches its TikTok rival, Instagram Reels

Illustration of the Instagram logo with the light blinking as if it's recording.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Facebook-owned Instagram on Wednesday launched its answer to the popular karaoke app TikTok, whose future remains in limbo.

The big picture: Facebook has a long record — sometimes successful, sometimes not — of adopting features that have proven popular on rival platforms and rolling them out to its billions of users worldwide in an effort to avoid being eclipsed by younger upstarts.

Driving the news: Reels enters the fray as TikTok, threatened with a ban by President Trump because of its Chinese ownership, has opened negotiations to be acquired by Microsoft.

  • A world where Reels must compete with a Microsoft-owned TikTok will present a very different challenge to Facebook than a world in which TikTok has been shut down in the U.S.

Be smart: Reels is the first product Instagram has created that focuses more on creators than everyday users. Reels' video distribution algorithm will resemble TikTok's: users will see the most popular videos at the moment, rather than a selection tailored to their individual profile.

Details: The new product will be embedded within Instagram, so that the app's 1 billion+ user base can tap into it and help it achieve wide adoption.

  • The product will debut in over 50 countries on Wednesday, including the U.S., India, Brazil, France, Germany, the U.K., Japan, Australia and others.
  • It will allow users to create 15-second videos using editing tools that are embedded in Instagram's camera, like a countdown clock, a timer and a new align tool, which gives users an easy way to string together different video cuts.
  • It will include music from a big library of titles that Instagram has recently licensed from music labels.
  • Reels differs from TikTok thanks to Instagram's augmented reality effects, which let users overlay images and filters onto their videos.

Between the lines: Reels gives Instagram an opportunity to tap into a new creative community, one that's more focused on talent than the beauty-and-aesthetics topics that dominate Instagram today.

  • "We've not been historically good at helping new creators find an audience," said Vishal Shah, Instagram's VP of product, on a call with reporters Tuesday.
  • "The pitch for new creators is that Reels is a good way to get discovered, even if you don't have a follower base."

What creators like about TikTok is that they can amass huge audiences quickly if their video gains traction.

  • Instagram says creators will be able to share Reels videos privately with their friends and followers via direct messages or on their Stories, but they also now have the opportunity to be discovered by Instagram's massive audience within its Explore tab if they wish to do so and if their accounts are set to public.
  • Reels videos will live in a dedicated space within the Explore tab called the Stage.
  • Because Instagram doesn't have a "share" button, it's been hard for content on Instagram to go viral to lots of people fast.

Be smart: Instagram had previously launched a Reels-like product called Lasso, that it later shut down. Executives told reporters on a call Wednesday that it's hard to get a new app to reach mass adoption — hence the reason for making Reels a feature within Instagram.

Context: Executives acknowledged that the launch of Reels is timely, given TikTok's future in the U.S. is on the brink, but they say they did not expedite the launch to take advantage of the moment.

  • "This has always been part of our plan," said Shah. "We've been working on this for over a year."
  • The timing, he says, "happens to be coincidental" but it's also a reflection of an acceleration of what users increasingly say they want to do on Instagram.
  • "There is a lot of appetite for short-form, edited video on instagram," said Shah.
  • "We started to experiment over a year ago in Brazil with Reels. In last month, 45% of videos uploaded to the (Instagram) feed were 15 seconds or less," he said.

Yes, but: Instagram is coming somewhat late to the game. Already, several apps like Byte, Dubsmash and Triller are trying to win over TikTok users with similar products. And one of Instagram's biggest rivals, Snapchat, is reportedly testing TikTok-style design for exploring content.

What's next: For now, Instagram is focusing on rolling Reels out and getting users to adopt it. Executives say it's not focused on how it will make money with Reels quite yet.

  • "We're experimenting with different monetization options (for creators)," said Shah, referencing different Instagram products like Instagram shopping, and IGTV. "These are early and we are still testing them."
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