Instagram Reels first impressions: A whole lot of TikToks

Scrolling further through Instagram’s new short-form video feature Reels, I see an interior design video showing a swanky living room with modern furnishings, and TikTok’s signature watermark is clearly displayed in the top left corner. Next up is a tutorial on how to make buttery mashed potatoes, and a video showing different ways to style a flannel shirt.
The sequence felt disjointed, but I found the individual videos themselves engaging. All told, the Reels user experience stands in stark contrast to scrolling through TikTok’s “For You Page,” which has been lauded for its recommendation algorithm quickly learning what a user’s individual interests are and serving up videos in a way that doesn’t engender content whiplash.

Instagram launched Reels earlier this month, and was immediately criticized for incorporating many of TikTok’s core features, such as ways to incorporate music, original sound and special effects.

The timing of the copycat feature couldn’t be more perfect for Instagram, as TikTok has faced weeks of uncertainty over its future in the US due to its ownership by a Chinese company.
Amid the turmoil, TikTok stars have scrambled to find viable alternatives and build up their fan bases elsewhere in case a US ban of TikTok becomes a reality. That backdrop could mean more social media influencers are open to trying out Reels, but it doesn’t guarantee a recipe for success.

“Any big technology company can create another TikTok — as in the same functionality. But to rebuild that community, that’s very tough,” said Justin Kline, cofounder of influencer marketing firm Markerly. “I don’t think that [TikTok’s core younger] age demographic is going to just hop onto whatever other platform exists that has technology that mirrors what TikTok has.”

Creators are a huge part of any social media platform, and are increasingly being courted to produce exclusive content. Influencer marketing is already a billion-dollar-plus industry, and influencers have only so much time in a day to dedicate to different platforms.

Plus, every social network has its own format and audience; what makes someone a success on TikTok, for example, may not translate as well on YouTube.

Walid Mohammed, a 20-year old TikTok talent manager, said Instagram should tweak its Reels recommendations so that the feed doesn’t continue to show “completely random” content, which has been his experience. “Until Instagram figures out their algorithm, people aren’t going to use it,” said Mohammed. “I’ll swipe through a couple of Reels, but it’s not like TikTok where I get lost for hours.”

Reels offers many of the same features as TikTok, including music, original audio and special effects.
Still, Instagram and its parent company Facebook (FB) are infamous for lifting ideas from competitors and squashing would-be rivals by leveraging their vastly larger user bases. In 2016, for example, Instagram launched Stories, a concept pioneered by Snapchat, where photos and videos disappear after 24 hours. Eight months later, Stories surpassed Snapchat’s entire daily user base.
So far, some TikTokers are taking Reels seriously, while others are waiting to see if it takes off — and what TikTok’s ultimate fate will be — before investing more time and energy into it.
Lex Morales, a 19-year-old TikTok creator who has amassed 1.1 million followers in the past few months thanks to her comedic impressions of principals and teachers, has posted just one video to Reels, which was one of her previous TikTok videos. “For me, TikTok is still so new, I’m making videos every single day and I have to post to TikTok. I don’t have time to hop on this, so let me just reuse some of my old videos,” Morales said.

Other TikTokers are posting original videos to Reels, while also posting some of the same content to both platforms. Cross posting saves times, and also gives creators a way to test out what resonates better on the respective platforms.

“Every single day I’m thinking about what else I could be hopping on and doing,” said Christine Juhas, a 25-year-old TikToker with more than 3.7 million followers, who likes the Reels product and is pleased with the hundreds of thousands of views she’s getting on her videos. “With the threat of TikTok shutting down — or any platform shutting down — it’s of the utmost importance to figure out where else can I be putting this content … and what is the next big thing?”
Dalton Smiley, a TikTok star with more than 300,000 followers, sees Reels as an opportunity to be an early mover on the platform.

“You see a lot of these popular creators that are big on TikTok or Instagram, and they get big because they took advantage of the app in an early state,” he said. “I should take advantage of this opportunity now [with Reels], and really pour time into it, so that way when it skyrockets, I’ll be on the right side of it.”

“I wouldn’t be shocked if in six months, we don’t even know TikTok,” Smiley added.

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