When TikTok took the world by storm in 2019, it caught Instagram by surprise. The Facebook-owned company thought it was the most popular (and most cool) photo and short-form video-sharing website globally, so it was a shock to them to find out that millions of their users – especially users in the advertiser-friendly 18-25 demographic – preferred TikTok. Never a company to take things lying down, Instagram responded by launching “Reels.” At the time of the new feature’s launch in mid-to-late 2020, which varied depending on where you are in the world, the company appeared to be optimistic that they’d be able to use it to beat TikTok at its own game.
Despite the seemingly gambling-orientated nickname, “Reels” has nothing to do with online slot games, although it does seem very convenient that it could be an online casino with a name hinting at the slot game reels. It wouldn’t necessarily be out of the question for a Facebook-owned company to do something in that vein as Facebook has a preferred on-site online slots page on its core social network, but “Reels” was the brand name given to a feature which is, to all intents and purposes, a TikTok clone. Even TikTok itself accused Instagram of plagiarism when the feature was launched, and that sentiment was shared by many journalists who reviewed it at the time of its launch. One of the few differences, as a few cynics noted, is that there are things you can do on TikTok that can’t be done on “Reels,” but almost nothing you can do on “Reels” that can’t be done on TikTok. Even in those early days, it seemed that Facebook might be about to learn the same painful lesson that all online slots players learn at least once – sometimes you lose big, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
With so many people accusing “Reels” of being nothing more than a Facebook-branded “TikTok-Lite,” it was always likely to be difficult for Instagram to tempts users away from TikTok toward Instagram. In all likelihood, it would have been difficult to do that even if it weren’t for the mostly-negative reception that TikTok received in the press. The hard fact of the matter is that young people inherently don’t trust Facebook or Facebook-owned companies. Aside from being suspicious about how the company handles their data, they see Facebook as something their parents and grandparents use. Nothing is less cool to a teenager than the things their parents are interested in, and the reality is that after fifteen years on the internet, Facebook is old. It’s not the young, up-and-coming company that it once was, and it isn’t easy to see how it could ever reclaim that image.
Against the backdrop of all this, Instagram’s most senior staff have started to make quiet suggestions that “Reels” might not be long for this world – or at least that it won’t survive for much longer in its current form. The most recent such suggestion came from an interview that Adam Mosseri, the senior head of Instagram, recently gave to the Verge podcast. In that interview, Mosseri admitted to being unhappy with “Reels” in its current format and suggested that the company might look to ‘consolidate’ its multiple video formats in the year ahead. That might spell the end of “Reels” as a standalone feature and relegate it to the status of a button or an app inside something larger.
While admitting to being disappointed, Mosseri stopped short of calling the feature a failure. He said that it’s growing in user numbers every month and that more people watch “Reels” content with every passing week, but concedes that he and his company may have underestimated how much ground they had to make up on TikTok. Without specifying what the company’s internal targets for usage might have been, he said that “Reels” still has “a way to go” to reach those targets and that their approach might have to be re-evaluated very soon based on customer feedback. He acknowledges that the multiple filters and features offered on TikTok generate ‘viral’ content in a way that “Reels” isn’t yet capable of and that this is a crucial distinction when it comes to raising awareness of the feature and building its popularity.
Aside from “Reels,” Mosseri also indicated that he’s no longer satisfied with the performance of IGTV, which launched in 2018 to allow people to post longer-form videos than the Instagram platform allowed for at that time. Apparently, the company’s internal data indicates that the majority of users aren’t aware there’s a difference between IGTV and the videos that are posted to Instagram pages in general, and so there’s been a brand communication failure somewhere. Part of this is, by his own admission, the company’s fault. He feels they’ve thrown too many ideas at the wall in recent years and ended up with a muddled group of products when they might be better served by focusing on simplicity and clarity. Rather than basic Instagram videos, IGTV, and “Reels” being three different things, they might all be united under one new banner before the year is out.
It’s essential that Instagram does something if it wants to close the gap on TikTok because it isn’t going to get any help from elsewhere. Spirits within the company were presumably boosted six months ago when the Donald Trump administration in the United States of America indicated that it would ban TikTok because of purported uncertainties about the app’s relationship with the Chinese government, but after months of wrangling and back-and-forth statement issued through the press, those plans were eventually dropped. With Donald Trump no longer the President and Joe Biden expected to attempt to normalize relations with China, TikTok’s long-term future appears to be secure. That means they can once again begin planning for the future – something that likely won’t have been a focus for them during the past twelve months. The app will come up with innovations of its own, so it’s important for Instagram that it’s able to come up with responses.
We can’t say for sure that “Reels” is headed for the graveyard of abandoned Facebook ideas. It might yet prove to be the case that it survives by absorbing IGTV and standard Instagram videos to become something larger. What is clear, though, is that this isn’t the destiny that Instagram had in mind for it six months ago – and it’s a little embarrassing that the team behind the platform is being forced into potentially significant changes this early on in its existence.