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Instagram's plan to take on TikTok: Copy it, then crush it

With Reels, Instagram has a vertical-scrolling, short-form, discovery-focused video tool of its own.

Instagram Reels

Instagram Reels takes what's great about TikTok and puts it in Instagram.

Image: Instagram

Instagram didn't build Reels in response to President Trump's threat to ban TikTok. It's been testing the feature since last fall, first in Brazil and then in a handful of other countries. But it's surely no accident that Reels — which is either an homage to TikTok or a shameless rip-off of it, depending on your perspective — is launching now. TikTok is under threat, and Instagram sees its chance to capitalize.

Instagram isn't the only app making a direct run at TikTok. Not even close. Triller, a 5-year-old app that has emerged as a go-to "TikTok but not TikTok" option, is at the top of both Google and Apple's app stores. Dubsmash, Byte, Likee, Clash and others have all seen downloads surge in the last several weeks as the possibility of TikTok's disappearance became more real. This week, Snap announced that users will soon be able to add music to their Snaps … which is to say: Snap announced TikTok.

But if you were going to bet on one company successfully copying what makes TikTok great — or "adapting" it, to use Mark Zuckerberg's term from the Big Tech hearing last week — and then beating TikTok at its own game, you'd have to bet on Instagram. Instagram knows exactly how to do it.

On a call with reporters ahead of the Reels launch, Instagram's head of product, Vishal Shah, acknowledged that it isn't a new idea. "It's not something that's unique to our platform," he said. "Others are definitely tapping into this format, whether that's a TikTok or YouTube or Snap, or actually before that Musical.ly and Vine." It was reminiscent of when Instagram launched Stories in 2016, and Kevin Systrom effectively admitted to copying Snapchat but also argued it didn't matter. "They deserve all the credit," Systrom said at the time, but "this isn't about who invented something. This is about a format and how you take it to a network and put your own spin on it." Reels proves that Instagram's thinking hasn't changed a bit.

Let's start with Instagram's network, which is unmatched (except by Facebook's, though Instagram's cool factor gives it an advantage even there). Instagram has more than a billion monthly users, more than 500 million daily users, more than 500 million daily users of Stories. Along with YouTube, it has become the home base for many creators; they'll use other apps and experiment with other things, but their business starts with Instagram. Over the last week, as the possibility of a TikTok ban became more real, lots of well-known creators started telling their fans to follow them on Instagram.

That's not to say Facebook and Instagram can dominate any market by virtue of sheer size, though. IGTV hasn't become the future-of-entertainment service Instagram intended it to be. (If it had, TikTok may never have taken off in the first place.) And Facebook's been trying to crack social video for years, and none of it — not Lasso, Poke or Camera — ever took off.

Now let's talk about Instagram's spin on TikTok. Reels isn't a separate app but rather a feature inside Instagram, a new tab in every creator's profile. When someone makes a 15-second Reel — which they do in the Instagram app, with existing Instagram filters, a huge library of music, and all the artistic tools they get from the rest of Instagram — they can upload it to their feed, their Stories, send it as a DM, or just let it live in Reels.

When you're just watching a video, though? Reels is TikTok. The full-screen video, the scrolling, the interactions. It's all TikTok.

The most important TikTok feature Instagram is "adapting" is the way discovery works. Instagram has always centered on two things: who people follow and what they're interested in. The service is already very good at surfacing your favorite Formula 1 driver, and other popular Formula 1 posts you might like. But, as Shah put it, "Instagram is also a place and a home for entertainment, and Reels is going to be a really important part of the future of entertainment for Instagram."

That means making it easier for people to find stuff they like — and making it easier for creators to gain a following. Shah noted that one big complaint about Instagram is that it's hard for new creators to find an audience, something TikTok cleverly solved with viral challenges, song-based discovery and the whole idea of the For You page. That's part of why TikTok has been so successful: As a group of creators described in an open letter calling for Trump not to ban the app, "It does not matter whether you have a reputation as a creator or if you know people who do. Small-town shop owners in India have the same opportunity to make a living from their talents as A-list celebrities."

On Instagram, Reels are integrated into the Explore page, where viewers can tap on a song to see all the Reels made with that music, or tap on a profile to see a creator's other Reels. Going forward, Shah said, "it's a blend of curation and AI to source the material." In its early days, Instagram relied heavily on manual curation to help surface the best stuff on the platform, and it will do the same with Reels. Shah also said Reels is causing Instagram to think differently about those recommendations: "It isn't just about optimizing for your experience as a consumer, but thinking about what it means for a new creator to find an audience. And that's new on Instagram." That likely means a trade-off, with Instagram leaning less on ultrapersonalized content and more on showing users new things.

Copying TikTok's discovery means copying its algorithm, though, and that won't be easy for Instagram or anyone else. TikTok's algorithm is famous for knowing what people want to watch, so much so that it seems to anticipate their interests. Since ByteDance's early days building a news app, it has been refining its machine-learning tools, always attuned to what people like more than who they follow. Even with TikTok promising total algorithmic transparency, its unique brand of addictiveness will be hard to copy.

The way Instagram sees it, Reels fit into a unique slot in the service. They're more public and discoverable than Stories, which are most useful for engaging with an existing audience. But they're less high-stakes than the main feed, which for many creators is now such an important portfolio and storefront that every post gets extra scrutiny. Reels is a place creators can be themselves, can experiment and try things, but also be shared and discovered.

Shah was quick to say that TikTok has done a lot of things right, and that competition is good for everyone in the space. Its ambitions are clear, though: Instagram's long hoped to be more than just a social network. It wants to be the future of entertainment, too. Clearly, the future of entertainment looks like TikTok. But it might be called Reels.

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Image: Tesla/Protocol

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