Why Reels is Shoehorned into Instagram

Facebook's launch of Reels is absurdly well-timed

Key Takeaways

  • You can now get a TikTok-like stream on Instagram.
  • Reels is Facebook’s attempt to keep Instagram users from leaving for TikTok.
  • Reels is actually pretty good.
Instagram Reels

As Instagram adds a new TikTok-style feature called Reels into its app, you might wonder why it didn’t create a new app altogether. The Facebook-owned photo-sharing app already feels a bit overstuffed with features copied from Snapchat, for example, and TikTok’s way of presenting viral videos is so different from Instagram’s that it seems like Reels has been shoehorned into a place it doesn’t fit. 

There is a good reason for it, however.

Reeling It In

Instagram’s new Reels feature is Facebook’s attempt to head off TikTok. Reels adds a new section to the Instagram app, where you can see a stream of videos created by other Instagrammers. The twist is these videos come from strangers, rather than people you’ve chosen to follow. 

TikTok is a massive success, so Facebook is doing the same thing it did to bury Snapchat: clone it and add it to Instagram. Reels itself has been in testing for months, so its final launch in a week when TikTok dominates the news may actually be a genuine coincidence.

This isn’t the first time Facebook has used its dominant photo-sharing network to head off competition, though. Instagram Stories, which has been a huge hit, was added in January 2016 to compete with Snapchat. Now, just like Stories, Reels has been shoved into Instagram, instead of launching as a standalone app.

Social Network vs Video Channel

Instagram is a social network based on photos (and some videos). TikTok is more like YouTube, where you watch videos from an algorithmically generated feed. On Instagram, you follow people, and you only see the photos, videos, and stories they post. On TikTok, you open the app to a stream of suggested clips. The algorithm learns what you like, and gives you more. Here’s how Instagram describes Reels in a blog post:

Reels in Explore showcases the best of trending culture on Instagram. Discover an entertaining selection of reels made by anyone on Instagram, in a vertical feed customized for you. If you love a reel, you can easily like, comment or share it with your friends.

How Reels looks in Instagram

In practice, it’s not quite so clear cut, but that’s the general difference, and it’s quite a big one. If you already use YouTube and Facebook, you know your reasons for visiting one or the other are quite different.

But one thing is exactly the same for Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok: they’re how you kill a few minutes when you’re bored. What they all want is your attention, and that’s what makes the super-addictive, endless stream of TikTok a threat to Facebook.

What Is Facebook’s Plan?

Facebook might not be able to pull in the millions of users heavily into TikTok, but it can prevent Facebook and Instagram’s users from jumping ship. One key is demographic. 

“I believe that the key demographic in FB these days are baby boomers,” Professor in social communication Raquel Herrera told Lifewire in a direct message. Also, “Millennials and Gen-Xers migrated to Instagram a long time ago.” 

The heavy users of TikTok, on the other hand, are “preteens to teens and young adults.”

Facebook itself, then, has little hope of tempting TikTok users. Facebook is the place your parents and grandparents hang out, after all. It would do better to focus on keeping its existing users around.

And this is why Reels is built into Instagram. It might complicate the app, and it may not easily fit in with the philosophy of Instagram’s social network, but it’s a great way to stop people from even trying TikTok. Why sign up for a new service when you already have it in the one you use? A separate app, on the other hand, would take a lot more work to launch, especially for long-time Instagram users who refuse to use Facebook proper. 

“When Instagram copied Stories from Snapchat, it was built into the app,“ said Herrera. “So I guess they are applying the same logic to Reels: easy video montage and effects copied from TikTok,” but targeted at an older demographic.

The Reel Deal

With this in mind, the integration of Reels into Instagram makes sense. And it actually works, kinda. Posting a Reel is as easy as posting a Story, albeit with new editing tools and effects. And it’s also easy to take a look at Reels, which is a single button-tap away from your main Instagram feed.

But the real winners here might be existing Instagram stars, or stars-in-waiting. Instead of having to start over, building up enough of a following to start trending on TikTok, they can use their existing power. Facebook, too, stands to win if Reels creates some TikTok-level superstars.

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