In November 2013, the Wall Street Journal reported that Snapchat had declined a $3 billion offer from Facebook. Trying to buy a direct rival was one of Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg‘s weapons to neutralize the competition. He had already used it on Instagram a year earlier and would use it again in the future to take WhatsApp.
Another less effective weapon, and also already in use at that time, was to copy the main feature of rivals into new apps, like the forgettable Poke and Slingshot.
The failure of Snapchat’s billion-dollar offer and the subsequent failure of the original clones (a bit of a contradiction, but you get the point…) led to a risky bet: boost Instagram, by then already quite large but somewhat smaller than Facebook, to stop Snapchat’s rapid growth once and for all.
In August 2016, Instagram introduced Stories, a feature to post photos and videos that vanish after 24 hours. It was a perfect copy of the feature designed by Snapchat and, until that moment, its great differential.
The move was an undeniable success, both in terms of audience and strategy. Instagram became synonymous with stories and managed to slow down Snapchat’s growth. In parallel, almost tacitly, Instagram sent a message to the industry that it was okay to copy it too, which was in fact done exhaustively, to the point of turning into a meme the insertion of stories everywhere.
And now, almost ten years later, here we are again. The social network on the rise at the moment is China’s TikTok. The main product is short, heavily edited, full-screen videos recommended by a powerful algorithm that is even more obscure than Western social networks.
Now, however, ByteDance (TikTok’s owner) has grown too fast to be bought. Zuckerberg didn’t even try, he went right for the copy. He turned to Instagram again to launch the so-called Reels in August 2020. The name is odd, but in essence, it is TikTok within Instagram.
TikTok has proven to be a better-prepared, more resilient rival to Snapchat. Almost two years after the addition of Reels to Instagram, TikTok still shows no signs of slowing down. This perhaps explains the disfiguration Instagram is going through as if Zuckerberg is willing to double or triple his bet.
It is not enough to push Reels to the user at all times, putting them on the feed or between stories, no: Instagram is also testing or has already added many features of the rival, such as a layout identical to TikTok‘s feed, automatic captions, and “collabs”.
In parallel to this offensive, Instagram suffers from the flood of videos originally posted on TikTok and reused in the Reels, with watermark and all. In other words, with TikTok, Reels are a secondary feature even within Instagram.
Meta knows that the public prefers TikTok, as Facebook Papers revealed, and has implemented algorithm changes to stimulate the posting of original videos on Reels – or, in other words, to beg people to stop reposting videos downloaded from TikTok on Instagram.
The truth is that TikTok is driving an almost complete redesign of Instagram: we are witnessing a kind of “tiktokzation” of Instagram. But this excessive “inspiration” in TikTok is not exclusive to Meta. YouTube has also copied the format, there called Shorts, and recently reported that short videos are already viewed 30 billion times a day, four times more than a year earlier. Twitter is testing a feed view similar to TikTok’s.
It is not surprising, then, that Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, says that the app has ceased to be a photo social network to become a video one, nor the excess of “recommended” content, from profiles we do not follow, flooding the feed.
In 2016, shortly after the launch of Stories, Instagram‘s then-CEO Kevin Systrom hit back at criticism that his app had copied Snapchat by admitting that it had indeed copied it. “Let’s take Instagram on its first day: Instagram was a mix of Hipstamatic, Twitter [and] some things from Facebook, as the ‘Like’ button. You can trace the origins of every feature that anyone has in their app at some point in the history of technology.”
The same justification is being used again in the dispute with TikTok.
In the latest financial results report, Zuckerberg said that he has seen, in the 18 years since he founded Facebook, several transitions in media formats and that short videos are just the latest of them. And that this time, artificial intelligence is on board to reorganize the feeds.
We are going, according to Zuckerberg, from a manual curating logic to a total handing over of that content selection to algorithms – exactly what TikTok does. Reels already account for 20% of time spent on Instagram.
(Translated by Carolina Pompeo)