Instagram is launching a video-music remix feature to finally fight back against Chinese social rival TikTok. Instagram Reels lets you make 15-second video clips set to music and share them as Stories, with the potential to go viral on a new Top Reels section of Explore. Just like TikTok, users can soundtrack their Reels with a huge catalog of music, or borrow the audio from anyone else’s video to create a remix of their meme or joke.
Reels is launching today on iOS and Android but is limited to just Brazil, where it’s called Cenas. Reels leverages all of Instagram’s most popular features to Frankenstein-together a remarkably coherent competitor to TikTok’s rich features and community of 1.5 billion monthly users, including 122 million in the U.S., according to Sensor Tower. Instead of trying to start from scratch like Facebook’s Lasso, Instagram could cross-promote Reels heavily to its own billion users.
But Instagram’s challenge will be retraining its populace to make premeditated, storyboarded social entertainment instead of just spontaneous, autobiographical social media like with Stories and feed posts.
“I think Musically before TikTok, and TikTok deserve a ton of credit for popularizing this format,” admits Instagram director of product management Robby Stein. That’s nearly verbatim what Instagram founder Kevin Systrom told me about Snapchat when Instagram launched Stories. “They deserve all the credit,” he said before copying Snapchat so ruthlessly that it stopped growing for three years.
Chinese startups were always criticized for copying American companies, but Reels’ launch signals the grand shift to cloning in the opposite direction.
Yet Stein insists, “No two products are exactly the same, and at the end of the day, sharing video with music is a pretty universal idea we think everyone might be interested in using. The focus has been on how to make this a unique format for us.” The key to that divergence? “Your friends are already all on Instagram. I think that’s only true of Instagram.”
Throwing around Instagram’s weight
Starting in Brazil before potentially rolling out elsewhere could help Instagram nail down its customization and onboarding strategy. Luckily, Brazil has a big Instagram population, a deeply musical culture and a thriving creator community, says Stein.
It also isn’t completely obsessed with TikTok yet, like fellow developing market India. As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said about trying to grow Lasso, “We’re trying to first see if we can get it to work in countries where TikTok is not already big.” Instagram used this internationalization strategy to make Stories a hit where Snapchat hadn’t expanded yet, and it worked surprisingly well.
Instagram also has the U.S. government on its side for a change. While its parent company Facebook is being investigated for antitrust and privacy violations, TikTok is also under scrutiny.
Chinese tech giant ByteDance’s $1 billion 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly, another Chinese app similar to TikTok but with traction in the U.S., is under review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. ByteDance turned Musical.ly into TikTok, but it could have to unwind the acquisitions or make other concessions to U.S. regulators to protect the country’s national security. Several senators have also railed against TikTok injecting Chinese social values via censorship into the American discourse.
Perhaps Instagram’s best shot at differentiation is through its social graph. While TikTok is primarily a feed broadcasting app, Instagram can work Reels into its Close Friends and Direct messaging features, potentially opening a new class of creators — shy ones who only want to share with people they trust not to make fun of them. A lot of this lipsyncing / dancing / humor skit content can be kinda cringey when people don’t get it just right.
How Instagram Reels works
Users will find it in the Instagram Stories shutter modes tray next to Boomerang and Super-Zoom. They can either record with silence, borrow the audio of another video they find through hashtag search or Explore, or search a popular or trending song. Some audio snippets will even get their own pages showing off top videos made with them. Teaching users to poach audio for their remixes will be essential to getting Reels off the ground.
Facebook’s enormous music collection secured from all the major labels and many indie publishers powers Reels. Users pick the chunk of the song they want, and can then record or upload multiple video clips to fill out their Reel. Instagram has been building toward this moment since June 2018, when it first launched its Music stickers.
Instagram is adding some much-needed editing tools for Reels, like timed captions so words appear in certain scenes, and a ghost overlay option for lining up transitions so they look fluid. Still, Reels lacks some of the video filters and special effects that TikTok has purposefully built to power certain gags and cuts between scenes. Stein says those are coming.
Once users are satisfied with their editing job, they can post their Reel to Stories or Close Friends, or message it to people. If shared publicly, it also will be eligible to appear in the Top Reels section of the Explore tab. Most cleverly, Instagram works around its own ephemerality by letting users add their Reels to their profile’s non-disappearing Highlights for a shot to show up on Explore even after their 24-hour story expires.
Instead of having to monetize later somehow, Instagram can immediately start making money from Reels since it already shows ads in Stories and the Explore tab. The feature is sure to get plenty of exposure, as 500 million Instagram users already open Stories and Explore each month. Still, Reels’ composer and feed will be buried a few extra taps away from the homescreen compared to TikTok.
Cloning TikTok isn’t just about the features, though Reels does a good job of copying the core ones. Creating scripted content is totally new for most Instagram users, and could feel too showy or goofy for an app known for its seriousness.
TikTok is 100% about acting ridiculous just to make people smile, your personal image be damned. That’s the opposite of the carefully manicured image of glamour and glory most Instagram users try to project. It could feel counter-intuitively more awkward to perform comedy in front of your real friends and fans than it does on a dedicated world stage.
Instagram, and Instagrammers, may have to lose their artful, cool aesthetic to embrace the silliness of tomorrow’s social entertainment. But if Reels can change Instagram’s culture to one where we’re comfortable looking stupid, it could beat TikTok’s talent competition by opening a million private karaoke rooms for goofing off just with friends.