When it comes to buzz, the viral video app TikTok has been hard to beat in 2020’s social media scene. But now, Instagram has entered the chat.
On Thursday, the Facebook-owned property officially launched Instagram Reels in the U.S. and 49 other countries. Reels is Instagram’s answer to the short-form video style that’s swept the internet, like on the since-shuttered Vine, ephemeral Snapchat and current behemoth TikTok, which recently topped 2 billion downloads. Much like TikTok, Reels offers users a suite of creative tools to splice together 15-second videos with customizable music, text, special effects and scene-stitching technology, as well as a dedicated way to discover and share those clips. With Reels, Instagram—with its billion-plus monthly users—is hoping to bulk up its piece of the social media puzzle, adding to its arsenal of 15-second snippets on the ephemeral Stories, minute-long traditional grid videos and longer-form video hosted on IGTV and Instagram Live.
“We see Reels as us responding to what the community has already been doing, already been asking for,” Instagram Director of Product Tessa Lyons-Laing told TIME.
Instagram’s hope is no doubt that TikTok’s users will flock to its new offering and leave its rival behind. But nearly a dozen creators who spoke with TIME say they’re planning to experiment with Reels while maintaining their presence on TikTok. After getting burned by investing their time and talents heavily on ill-fated platforms before, creators are hungry for options to establish their followings. Their consensus: when it comes to social platforms, the more, the merrier.
Reels is launching globally just as TikTok, the giant of short video with 800 million monthly users, is facing a complex web of concerns. In the past week, U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to ban TikTok from operating in the country while under Chinese ownership, triggering a scramble among American tech giants to acquire it from Beijing-based parent company ByteDance. (Microsoft is the leading contender in the M&A wars.) TikTok has also faced criticisms about its algorithms, which some creators say have resulted in unequal treatment of Black creators and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Reels has been in the works for over a year, and has been tested in Brazil, Germany, France and India for months. In that time, new entrants have made their own strides: Triller, Byte, Likee, Dubsmash, Roposo and Mitron are just a few of the apps trying to get a slice of the short-video pie. Has Instagram’s launch lagged behind competitors? The company isn’t worried. “Competition is better for consumers long term, and that’s something we agree with,” Lyons-Laing said. Besides, Instagram brought in $20 billion in ad revenue in 2019. Still, Reels’ launch comes as Facebook and other tech giants are under pressure over their alleged anticompetitive practices, which critics say make it impossible for new, potentially groundbreaking startups to gain traction—Instagram’s massive userbase certainly gives it a leg up on apps starting from scratch.
To kickstart its progress, Instagram has been working with influencers to boost the launch, paying production costs to sweeten the deal. But the bulk of creators on either platform will be fending for themselves—and many are ready to test their luck.
Why not both?
For platform mega-influencers like Amanda Cerny, a high-energy comedian and actor who got her start on Vine and YouTube and now claims nearly 26 million followers on Instagram and 8.6 million on TikTok, Reels is the logical next step; now her long-form IGTV sketches can live alongside shorter Reels clips. For someone racking up millions of views daily, directing traffic and choosing where to put energy into creating custom content is a full-time job; Cerny has made her career by building on these platforms and developing partnerships. “Surprisingly to some, most creators work hard every single day filming, collaborating, writing, editing all for free and at their own cost,” she said.
A post shared by Amanda 𝕮𝖊𝖗𝖓𝖞 (@amandacerny) on Jul 23, 2020 at 4:27pm PDT
But it won’t stop her from using TikTok. “Just as brands shouldn’t advertise on only one platform, I can’t put all of my eggs in one basket either,” she told TIME on the eve of the Reels launch. “If I did that in 2014 with Vine, I wouldn’t be around today.” Cerny and other savvy creators are eager to have more options, even if they aren’t shifting gears entirely. “Different strokes for different folks! A fan in India may be on Reels while a fan in Brazil may be on TikTok,” she said. “I want to spread the smiles globally and not limit myself to one platform.”
Even creators like Lynn Davis of @cookingwithlynja and Muskan Umatiya of @moo5e, who have smaller Instagram and YouTube accounts and much more significant TikTok followings, intend to add Reels to their social media portfolio. “I will plan to use both platforms,” Davis told TIME. A retired Nokia product manager who became TikTok-popular over the summer after posting 30 days of cooking videos with the help of her videographer son, Davis has enjoyed the distraction while staying at home. “There’s no reason not to post on both,” she said. While she has over 700,000 followers on TikTok, and only about 24,000 on Instagram, she says her content works in both places and views have been growing steadily. “I think it’ll transition very nicely,” she said. Neither platform has reached out to her, and she does not monetize her content. But that’s not the point; she likes connecting with a new generation. “Everybody says, ‘I want you to be my grandma,'” she says of the comments on her videos. “When somebody copies a recipe, it’s very flattering.”
Umatiya said she will “definitely” test out Reels, especially because she would like to see her TikTok following transfer over to Instagram. “I would engage with a lot more fans that way, since it’s possible to direct message anyone on Instagram,” she said. (On TikTok, you can only message friends.)
Chinyelu Mwaafrika, a TikTok comic with 100,000 followers, is ready to give Reels a shot too. Known for his short, confessional, fast-talking monologues, Mwaafrika has been wary of TikTok despite his popularity; earlier in July, he spoke to TIME about his concerns regarding what he felt was unequal treatment of content by Black creators like him. But so far, he hasn’t felt that he has other options. “In a lot of ways, we’re in a hard place. I like creating content. I like people seeing my content. I like a lot of people seeing my content,” he said. “Right now, TikTok’s the only outlet I have for that to happen.” He hasn’t focused on his other social media accounts—becoming an “influencer,” he says, wasn’t his plan—and his Instagram still has fewer than 1,000 followers. “Regardless of how good Reels is, I think I’m definitely going to start posting my content on Instagram. And maybe if it does well on Instagram I’ll start doing YouTube as well,” he said. Still, if the eyeballs remain on TikTok, he won’t be straying too far. Nearing his 100,000-follower mark, he will soon be able to get lucrative brand deals.
A different mechanism
Some creators, however, never quite found their footing on TikTok, and are happy to see a new alternative on Instagram. That’s the case for Chris Zurich, a New-York-based singer-songwriter. He has a little over 12,000 Instagram followers; his videos, posted to his grid, rack up views many times that. But his acoustic music videos on TikTok only got him to a few dozen. Reels is now an intriguing option; TikTok “encouraged such a different approach” in terms of the tone that creators took and the type of content that takes off—like humor, tutorials, advice and dancing—while on Instagram he can be consistent with his own style of music and personality.
A post shared by C h r i s || Z u r i c h (@zurich_music) on Apr 19, 2020 at 5:56pm PDT
To others, like Emily Barbour or @emuhhhleebee, the Instagram launch couldn’t come at a better time. Just a few days ago, Barbour announced she would be taking an indefinite hiatus from TikTok after dealing with what she believed was “shadow-banning” of her content and inconsistent viewership. While Barbour wasn’t aware of Reels before TIME reached out, she said it was “pretty exciting.” She hopes she won’t have to “fight” with an algorithm, an idea that appeals to her.
Not everyone is sold on Reels’ potential. “Even with the challenges I’ve had as a Black woman fighting against the seemingly biased TikTok algorithm, TikTok also has a sort of magical haze of mysticism in the way the app itself operates,” TikTok creator Onani Banda, @thedopestzambian, told TIME. “As an Instagram user, even with those very tools of video creating at my disposal, I don’t see Instagram giving me the same reach or opportunity.” She says she’ll try it out, but is not “expecting much to come of it.” Umatiya, meanwhile, said she has been debating leaving TikTok because of concerns about the ban. “But I know deep down I never will, because making creative content is what makes me the happiest,” she said.
Potential room to create
Those who are using short-form video popularity as an income source will face a more complicated landscape. TikTok recently announced the development of a planned $2 billion-plus “Creator Fund” to support talent on its platform. Instagram, meanwhile, secured exclusive content for its launch and is offsetting production costs for select partners. While right now Reels isn’t a place to make money, monetization is certainly the plan “longer term,” Lyons-Laing told TIME. The priority, she said, is getting new tools in users’ hands and seeing where they take them.
All the creators agree that Reels will have steep competition when it comes to one main thing: discovery. TikTok’s discovery mechanism is distinct from other social media platforms because it surfaces strangers’ content first. For Reels to truly supplant or compete with TikTok or its copycats, like the music-focused Triller or Singapore’s Likee, it has to become a place of native discovery, offering up connections to content outside of the approved friend network. Without that, Reels may become just another blip on the brand’s project radar. (In 2018, for instance, Facebook experimented with a precursor product called Lasso; it was shuttered this year after failing to gain steam.)
“It’ll be interesting to see to what degree Instagram is able to match what TikTok was known to be best at,” Zurich said. “It’s an app that was essentially geared toward virality and putting your own spin on existing trends.” While that has meant that the mysterious “algorithm” outweighs the importance of a user’s curated feed—and can have effects like those that Barbour, Banda and Mwaafrika have noticed—it’s also created the opportunity for unusual accounts, like Davis’s, to find a huge audience.
“If I were the CEO of Instagram,” Mwaafrika said, “my main goal with the Reels thing—well, I’d like to keep 60 second max video format. And I’d make sure it has a similar mechanism for discovery.” That seems to be Instagram’s plan: boosting the Explore functions and making content even more shareable is a front-and-center part of its Reels launch.
Playing the long game
As creators look to a future with audiences dispersed across any number of different platforms, each with their own requirements, they know there’s work to be done if they want to stay relevant. “TikTok, it’s like Vine, I don’t think it’s going to be around forever,” Mwaafrika said. “If that’s the case, I’ve put a lot of work into TikTok. I don’t want that to have all been for nothing.” He’s hoping to “diversify” his followings across platforms while the going is still good. Davis, Barbour, Zurich, Umatiya, Cerny and Banda seem content to test out Reels without pinning their hopes on it, although they do have suggestions for small improvements: Barbour would like to see closed captions for better accessibility, while Umatiya dreams of an easier way to collaborate with other creators or communicate better with fans within the app, especially due to pandemic limitations on real-life meetups, and Cerny would appreciate a “retweet”-type feature, similar to Vine’s “Revines,” that eases the sharing process.
“I have seen many apps come and go,” Cerny said. “But the ones that have stuck around usually are the ones that support and listen to their creators’ concerns. The ones that don’t forget about their creators as they build their billion dollar valuations.” If content is king, the creator is, well, the deity.