Facebook expands Instagram Reels to India amid TikTok ban

As scores of startups look to cash in on the video content void that ban on TikTok and other Chinese apps has created in India, a big challenger is ready to try its hand.

Instagram said on Wednesday it is officially rolling out Reels — a feature that allows users to create short-form videos (up to 15 seconds long) set to music or other audio — to a “broad” user base in India. The Facebook-owned service first began testing Reels, which has been widely referred as “TikTok clone”, in select markets late last year.

TechCrunch reported on Monday that Reels was being tested in India, which the company confirmed was part of its plan to roll out the product in more markets. Today, Instagram is officially announcing the wider launch in India and sharing more details.

Video is already a popular way how many Indians engage on Instagram. “Videos make up over a third of all posts in India,” said Ajit Mohan, the head of Facebook India, in a call with reporters Wednesday. And in general, about 45% of all videos posted on Instagram are of 15 seconds or shorter, said Vishal Shah, VP of Product at Facebook.

So a broad test of Reels, which has also rolled out Brazil, France, and Germany, in India was only natural, Mohan said, dismissing the characterisation that the new feature’s availability now had anything to do with a recent New Delhi order.

India last week banned 59 apps and services developed by Chinese firms citing privacy and security concerns. Among the apps that have been blocked in the country was TikTok, ByteDance’s flagship app that has offered similar functionality as Reels for years.

Before the ban, TikTok’s biggest market outside of China was India. Late last year, TikTok said it had amassed over 200 million users in the country, and the firm was looking to expand that figure to at least 300 million this year.

In the event of TikTok’s absence, a number of startups including Twitter-backed Sharechat, Chingari, InMobi Group’s Roposo, and Mitron have ramped up their efforts and have claimed to court tens of millions of users. Sharechat said last week that it had doubled its daily active users in a matter of days to more than 25 million.

Gaana, a music streaming service owned by Indian conglomerate Times Internet, rolled out HotShots on Tuesday that curates user generated videos. Gaana had more than 150 million monthly active users as of earlier this year.

But Instagram, which has already attracted tens of thousands of influencers in India, is perhaps best positioned to replace TikTok’s relevance in the world’s second largest internet market.

Instagram had about 165 million monthly active users in India last month, up from 110 million in June last year, according to mobile insights firm App Annie, data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch. Mohan declined to comment on Instagram’s user base in India.

Mohan said he was hopeful that Instagram Reels would enable several content creators in India to gain followers worldwide. The platform has already courted several popular names including Ammy Virk, Gippy Grewal, Komal Pandey, Jahnavi Dasetty aka Mahathalli, Indrani Biswas aka Wondermunna, Radhika Bangia, RJ Abhinav and Ankush Bhaguna.

Reels videos will appear on Instagram’s Explore tab, enabling users to reach a broader audience than their own following base. Users can also share Reels as “Stories”, though, in that case the video will not appear in Explore tab and will disappear after 24 hours.

In recent years, platforms such as TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram have attracted more than a million content creators in India, several of whom have made it their livelihood. Just as equally impressive is who these creators are: Beauticians, dieticians, high school students from small towns in India, elderly who speak languages that very few people understand.

People who have been massively underrepresented in mainstream Bollywood movies and speeches of politicians have found a platform and gained a following that challenges the mainstream media’s reach. Many of these creators make thousands of dollars through advertisers and deals with brands.

Not everyone will, however, be able to find a replacement of TikTok, which had counted 1.2 million content creators on its platform in India.

Sajith Pai, Director at venture firm Blume, told TechCrunch in an interview that YouTube and Instagram would be able to court the top influencers from TikTok and other platforms. “But beyond a point, they won’t be bandying out much incentive to other creators,” he said.

In the run up to the launch of Reels, Facebook also secured deals with several Indian music labels including Saregama and T Series in India. Also ahead of Reels’ availability in India, Facebook announced it was shutting down Lasso, its yet another attempt at taking on short-form videos space. (That app was available in only select markets and failed to gain a foothold.)

For Facebook, which counts India as its biggest market by user count, there’s no shortage of apps it has in its arsenal to attract Indians. And it’s not afraid of doing a wide range of experimentations.

Instagram Lite, another Facebook app that is aimed at developing markets, was pulled from Google Play Store in May. When asked about it, Shah said the company had identified some issues in it and was working to resolve those. Instagram Lite, however, never gained much traction in India. It was not among the top 1,000 Android apps in India in January or April this year, according to App Annie. More than half a dozen third-party apps with “Instagram” name in their title, however, made the list during this period.

Wednesday’s announcement comes days after Facebook partnered with Indian education board CBSE to coach thousands of educators and students about a range of things including “Instagram’s Guide for Building Healthy Digital Habits” which is aimed at helping youngsters better understand the “socio-emotional space” they operate in and engage in health conversations.