What Instagram’s Attempts to Become TikTok Mean for You

Meta seems unaware of the fundamental differences

  • Instagram is determined to compete with TikTok, even if that means upsetting its existing users.
  • A failed trial to turn Instagram’s feed into a full-screen video viewer full of strangers has been reversed, but only temporarily.
  • Instagram and TikTok are fundamentally different, but Meta doesn’t seem to know that.
Closeup of someone holding a smartphone displaying the Instagram app.

Solen Feyissa / Unsplash.com

There was a time when Instagram was the biggest player in non-text social media, but there's a new threat—and Meta has its photocopier ready.

TikTok has become the third largest social network in the world, sitting behind Instagrad Facebook. It stands to reason that Instagram would look to TikTok to see what works as it considers its own plans for the future. But by trying to borrow features from TikTok, Instagram risks losing its soul. The existing user base isn't happy, and Instagram knows it.

Instagram's mimicking of the video-first social network makes sense, says Christina Warren, a podcaster, writer, and speaker specializing in technology. "I think it makes sense on the surface that Instagram wants to compete with TikTok. TikTok is the most popular app and most popular website and where Meta's most-wanted user base spends the most time," Warren told Lifewire via email. But what Instagram is forgetting is that it isn't that simple.

Instagram Isn’t TikTok

As Warren also quickly points out, the approaches of Instagram and TikTok differ wildly—or they used to.

If you leave Instagram, it has to be with the understanding that you aren't going to get access to that wide or a potential audience pool...

To Instagram users, and those that have been around since before the $1 billion Meta buyout in 2012, the app is where they go to share photos. But more importantly, it’s where they go to see photos shared by their friends, family, and people they explicitly chose to follow. Instagram, like Facebook, is based on users’ social graphs. "Who they really are, who they know in real life,” as Warren points out. People expect to see what they asked to see, and little more.

By contrast, TikTok goes about things differently. Instead, it’s based on showing people content from accounts that it thinks they want to see. TikTok is all about viral videos from strangers, surfaced by its algorithm. "I don’t expect to see my friends (I might not even want to). Instead, I’m using it as a way to find entertainment and content about things that interest me,” Warren says. It’s that distinction behind some of the pushback Instagram has had to deal with in recent days.

A Failed Experiment, But It’ll Be Back

Instagram recently began a test that saw people lose the traditional image-based interface they are used to. In its place, they were greeted with a TikTok-style full-screen feed that prioritized videos from strangers. And they were not happy.

Even the Kardashians got involved, demanding that Meta "make[s] Instagram Instagram Again." Tweets questioning the decision were challenging to miss. Meg Watson, a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald, didn't hold back when complaining about a feed full of content from strangers, videos reposted from TikTok, and ads.

Instagram rolled back the changes made during its trial following the backlash. Instagram chief Adam Mosseri told Platformer that he was glad that his company "took the risk" of making the change in the first place and added that it "learned a lot" from the experience.

How much did Instagram learn? Time will tell—Mosseri told Platformer that the backtrack isn't permanent, so expect Instagram to continue its push towards video.

Could Meta Compete With TikTok and Leave Instagram Alone?

Given Meta's determination to beat TikTok at its own game, could it do so while leaving Instagram alone? The prospect of Meta creating a new app to go toe-to-toe with TikTok isn't something Warren thinks is likely. Especially given the company's preference for buying apps rather than building them.

"I think that in an ideal world, making a stand-alone TikTok competitor that wasn't tied by your social graph would be a good idea," she said when asked about the possibility of Meta building an app to compete with TikTok. "The problem is, almost all of Meta's attempts to build new apps have failed. The only way Meta has successfully grown has been through acquisitions."

Someone installing TikTok on their smartphone.

@angieyoyo via Twenty20

What’s Next For Instagram Users?

If Instagram does push on with its attempt to turn itself into TikTok, where does that leave its users? The competition isn't strong.

Glass is an app and social network for photographers, but it isn't on the same level as the Instagram of old. It isn't free, either. And while other photo-sharing platforms are aimed at specific groups of people like astrophotographers, there is no direct replacement for Instagram. And that's bad news for people who don't want to live in the world Mosseri, Instagram, and Meta are determined to create. "If you leave Instagram, it has to be with the understanding that you aren't going to get access to that wide or a potential audience pool for your content among your friends again," Warren warns.

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