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Is Instagram ‘Reels’ a genuine threat to TikTok?

With TikTok edging closer to possible elimination in the US market, Instagram has decided to launch its own short-bite video platform ‘Reels’. But is it good enough to rival TikTok?

Last week Instagram rolled out its newest feature ‘Reels’ across 50 countries, with the intention of gaining a lucrative slice of the short-form content space. Rising like a phoenix from the ashes of Vine in 2016, TikTok recognised – and took full advantage of – a continued audience demand for platforms to create and consume short video-bites.

Now, with TikTok seniors embroiled in legal dispute with the Trump administration over concerns regarding Chinese surveillance, the most downloaded app of 2020 is possibly facing a nationwide exodus from its second largest market and revenue generator, unless current owners ByteDance can find an American buyer quickly. As you’d expect, big players are circling, ready to hop in TikTok’s grave.

What is Instagram Reels?

At first glance, Reels looks and feels a whole lot like TikTok; usernames, captions, and audio tracks are displayed on the lower left, and users cycle through videos in the exact same way (by swiping up). In that sense, it would appear Instagram is pushing for a seamless transition usability wise, should it start to win over the current TikTok demographic. While both allow for the splicing of multiple clips into a single video, a key difference between the two is that Reels offers a maximum time limit of 15 seconds for both single and multi-shot videos, compared to TikTok’s 1-minute ceiling with the latter. Lastly, as you’d no doubt gathered already, you will have to own an Instagram account to view and create Reels, TikTok on the other hand permits voyeurs to browse clips without signing up.

The Reels toolkit on is nigh-on identical to TikTok. Users can speed up or slow down videos, add AR effects, and of course apply audio tracks… that includes the ability to overlay audio from other uploads. After all, this option inspired huge traffic on TikTok following the release of Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’, and Instagram would love to boast similar success stories down the line with Reels.

People have noted the lack of a ‘Duet’ function, which allows TikTokers to create split-screen videos from multiple sources and is mostly used for goofy parodies.

Aggressive tactics

While the timing of the Reels announcement was brazen to say the least – in that it coincided directly with Trump’s executive order to ban TikTok on Sep 15th should ownership not change hands – Insta is bordering on the outrageous with its latest ploy.

According to an expose by The Wall Street Journal, ‘unnamed sources’ allege that Instagram is offering hundreds of thousands of dollars to lure high-profile TikTok creators to use Reels. On that front there’s been no actual namedrops, but Ad Age has confirmed early brand interest from big brands such as Dunkin, Red Bull, and Maybelline.

Early impressions

Instagram is no stranger to social wars, having arguably sealed the demise of Snapchat with the introduction of Stories, but is parent company Facebook punching above its weight here?

Negative press surrounding TikTok and potentially intrusive practices from ByteDance don’t seem to have had any real adverse impact on the platform’s engagement levels and viewership. In-fact, if you search #saveTikTok within the app right now, you’ll see that the hashtag has received a staggering 966.5 million searches in under a fortnight.

It’s also worth noting that when talking about the handling of private data and online security, Facebook don’t hold much gravitas at all these days. For those who would argue that Facebook is perhaps the lesser of two evils in that sense, I have two words for you: Cambridge Analytica.

Morality and user security aside then, it essentially becomes a straight shootout in terms of which platform can pull the neater tricks out of the hat. A competitive advantage for Instagram comes in the form of close affiliations to major record labels, as this has provided a far larger audio catalogue than TikTok goers are accustomed to, not to mention reassurance that their content won’t be taken down for copyright issues.

However, the absence of a ‘For You’ page (an algorithm which curates specific content to each individual’s interests) has led many TikTok users to label Reels as nothing more than a hollow imitation churned out to capitalise on ByteDance’s waning rep.

While the feature will likely trump IGTV, I don’t foresee Reels having enough to trigger a migration of TikTok users to Instagram for their short-bite video cravings. However, if a certain high-profile ban is upheld, my opinion my change drastically come mid-September.