Publishing & Songwriting

Instagram Reels Is DOA: Why TikTok Is Superior

While the world holds its breath on whether a US TikTok ban will actually go into effect, Instagram has tasted the blood in the water and debuted its new Instagram Reels, but this new feature may be dead on arrival.

Guest post by James Shotwell of Haulix

As the world waits to see if the United States follows through with a TikTok ban, Instagram’s competing service Reels feels dead on arrival.

Instagram launched its long-teased Reels feature at the beginning of August. A direct competitor to TikTok, Reels allows users to post 15-second clips set to music and other sounds they share with the global Instagram community. Its release follows the news that President Trump will be banning TikTok in September, but so far, the rollout isn’t taking the world by storm.

On the surface, Reels should be a hit. The feature looks and feels a lot like TikTok, which boasts more than a billion users worldwide. Users can browse through a seemingly endless collection of user-generated content set to catchy and humorous audio that provides a quick escape from the hellscape of 2020. Content creators can also use the sound from other creators’ clips, a tool that helped songs like “Old Town Road” from Lil Nas X go viral on TikTok.

But there is a problem—actually, more than one.

Reels may have the look and feel of TikTok and a large potential user base, but it suffers from being a small part of a much larger platform. To find Reels, users must first open Instagram, navigate to their explore page, and click on the Reels option at the top of the page. That is two more steps than TikTok, and the problems continue from there.

TikTok users have two feeds of content two choose from; one that they curate themselves through follows, and another that is generated by the platform’s algorithm. Reels only offers one feed, and it combines algorithmic predictions with what users want with the people they follow. You cannot follow someone in Reels alone, so any Reels creators someone follows will have photos and videos from those creators appear in the user’s main Instagram feed.

Then there is an issue with the length of Reels clips. TikTok allows users to make their content up to one-minute long, but Reels limits clips to fifteen seconds. That may be enough time to do a quick dance or lip-sync, but it places a seemingly unnecessary cap on creative expression.

Many of Reels’ most significant flaws stem from a core misunderstanding of why people use Instagram as opposed to TikTok. Instagram is a social network people use to give friends, family, and followers a glimpse into their lives. It is, in many ways, a carefully-curated glimpse into someone’s private life (or the life they want you to believe they lead). TikTok, on the other hand, is made with entertainment in mind. Most users don’t share personal content, just memes. It’s about making people laugh or smile or momentarily forget about whatever is bothering them. As the kids say, “it’s not that deep.”

However, all hope is not lost. Reels could become a go-to platform for creatives, but to do so, Instagram and its parent company, Facebook, need to reconsider their goals. What are you trying to accomplish? Do you want to entertain, and if so, how do you make that clear? Give users the ability to curate a Reels-specific following and make it easier to find the app’s feature. Facebook could even take things one step further and make Reels a standalone app for content creation that allows for cross-posting to Facebook and Instagram.

Instagram has built a large part of its business by stealing ideas that other services made famous. Its popular stories feature, which is the most used part of the app, is a variation of a similar tool that Snapchat brought to the public years prior. Similarly, though with less exciting results, IGTV is a variation of YouTube. These features both had their fair share of growing pains, but the longterm value is worth the effort needed to make them right. Reels could be the next ‘borrowed’ idea that hits big, but it’s not there-at least, not yet.

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company’s podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.

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