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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."

Go deeper

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
Nov 6, 2020 - Economy & Business

Chinese short-video and live streaming app KuaiShou files for IPO

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

KuaiShou, a Chinese short-video and live streaming app, filed for a Hong Kong IPO that reportedly will seek to raise $5 billion.

Why it matters: This reflects the booming market for TikTok-style services in China, as KuaiShou claims to have over 300 million daily users. Its rivals include Douyin (ByteDance's Chinese version of TikTok) and Nasdaq-listed Bilibili (which, like KuaiShou, includes Tencent and Alibaba as shareholders).

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."