Reels is a worthy TikTok rival lost in Instagram bloat

It risks cluttering up Instagram.


Earlier this week, Facebook finally released its latest attempt at a TikTok rival. It’s called Instagram Reels, and as its name suggests, it’s actually a feature that lives inside Instagram, without an app of its own. While incorporating Reels directly inside an already popular app gives it a good chance at succeeding, it also adds clutter and bloat to the Instagram experience, and after trying it out, risks confusing users.

At first glance, Reels looks and feels extremely similar to TikTok. The username, caption and audio track are displayed on the lower left, and the way you flip through videos feels identical as well (you swipe up to scroll to the next video). It doesn’t hurt that Instagram has done a good job in seeding early access to influencers who are also big on TikTok; most of the early Reels’ content has the same kind of dances and amusing lip sync memes, if not direct copies of the videos that were already previously posted on the rival video app.

Creating Reels will instantly be familiar to anyone who has used TikTok. You can speed up or slow down your videos, add AR effects and, of course, add audio tracks. If you want, you can also use the audio of someone else’s Reel to create your own video, which is an important element on TikTok that has helped make songs like Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” go viral. Reels also has an align or “ghost” tool that is useful for making video jump cuts, a popular TikTok technique.

Instagram Reels

But there are a few important differences between the two. For one thing, Reels are limited to 15 seconds, while TikTok videos can be as long as 60 seconds when you string four 15-second videos together. Additionally, you can’t post “Duets” -- which are side-by-side video responses -- on Reels like you can on TikTok. TikTok also has a few features that are designed for newbies, like templates that let you create photo slideshows and prompts to add text to your video. TikTok can even sense what it is that you’re taking a video of and offer an audio track suggestion to match. Another neat feature is that you don’t actually need to be a TikTok user to watch TikTok videos; you can just launch the app and view them without signing up. You can’t do that with Reels; you need to have an Instagram account to view the videos.

Perhaps the most standout difference, however, is that Reels doesn’t really, well, stand out. The feature is not at all apparent when you launch Instagram. Instead, you have to head on over to the Explore tab, where Reels is given its own dedicated section at the top. From there you have to then tap it again to watch the videos. That’s at least two more taps needed to get to your video feed, compared to TikTok where the main feed is there the second you launch it.

In a way, it makes sense that Reels is tucked away in Explore; after all, you don’t want it to mess up the main feed of photos. But this also makes it a little harder to access. It’s this kind of strange juxtaposition that highlights one of the biggest problems with Reels: it feels like an interloper in the already-cluttered Instagram experience.

The way that Reels implements its feed is an example of how it doesn’t really quite fit inside Instagram. With Reels, there is only one main Explore feed, which is generated via a combination of curated videos, popular reels across a variety of topics, plus ones that are based on your interests and the content you’ve liked and commented on. On TikTok, however, there are two feeds; one is the “For You” page, which is algorithmically-generated and personalized, and the other is for the people you’re Following. With Reels, there is no “Following” tab. Following a user on Reels just makes their photos show up on your main feed, the same as it would be if you followed anyone on Instagram.

That means that if you “followed” somebody on Reels because of their cool dance moves, you would then see the rest of their photo/video content on your main feed. But just because you want to see somebody’s cool dance moves doesn't mean you want to see their vacation photos. Sure, you can mute their posts, but that’s yet another step you need to take to customize your feed. You can also just tap on an individual user account to see their collection of Reels in a separate tab, but again, that’s yet another action you have to take.

Instagram Reels

One of the reasons for this awkwardness is that, fundamentally, TikTok and Instagram have slightly different purposes. TikTok is mostly known for sharing funny and fashionable memes with a strong entertainment element. Instagram, on the other hand, is largely known as a photo-sharing platform, which tends to have a more personal feel. For a regular user, the marriage of these two concepts doesn’t quite work.

Of course, there are outliers such as brands and wannabe influencers, and for them, Reels could be their ticket to Instagram stardom. As Engadget Senior Editor Karissa Bell said on TikTok, its aforementioned “For You” feed is one of the reasons that unknown personalities can gain a huge following just from a single video going viral. If Instagram were to implement a similar algorithm for its own Reels feed -- therefore surfacing lesser-known users with potentially viral content -- then this could result in the same thing. In fact, Instagram’s VP of Product Vishal Shah has said that the recommendations in Reels will be “separate” from the rest of Explore, with the idea that “Reels is a way for [new creators] to get discovered.”

Instagram has tried something like this before with IGTV, to mixed results. It was supposed to take on YouTube, with longer original content mixed in with your usual Instagram photos and videos. Unlike Reels, Instagram gave IGTV its own app, and is experimenting with commercials to bring ad revenue to influencers. But it doesn’t seem to have taken off the way that Instagram wanted, seeing as the company removed the IGTV button from its main interface this year because “very few” people used it. It’s safe to say that IGTV hasn’t exactly become a huge YouTube rival.

New feature 'Reels' by Facebook/Instagram running in this illustration photo taken in L'Aquila, Italy, on August 6, 2020. Facebook launches his new feature ''Reels'' on Instagram in 50 countries around the world. (Photo by Lorenzo Di Cola/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
NurPhoto via Getty Images

Perhaps the biggest reason Facebook is incorporating Reels into Instagram is that it worked so well with Stories. After all, Stories is a copy of Snapchat in the same way that Reels is a copy of TikTok, and Stories turned out to be a huge success for Instagram. Plus, Facebook did try to do a standalone TikTok clone called Lasso, but it just didn’t get enough users. Why not just tack on these extra features to an app that already has over a billion users instead of trying to get people to use a standalone one?

But Snapchat and TikTok are very different apps. The reason Stories worked so well is that Snapchat back then was a little obtuse and difficult to understand, while Stories was easier to grasp. Plus, Stories have that aforementioned intimate feel that tends to be familiar to a lot of Instagram users who are already used to sharing personal photos and videos.

Reels, on the other hand, feels very different; almost as if it were a clone of an entirely different app shoehorned into an existing one (which obviously it kinda is). Together with other elements like Stories, IGTV and a dedicated shopping hub, Reels is making Instagram feel as confusing and bloated as the Facebook app.

Also, while Stories is located front and center in Instagram, Reels is tucked away in a separate tab and is harder to find. It also lacks key features like Duets and is not all that friendly to newbies. Already, there is some confusion among Instagram users as to where the feature is and how to use it. While that’s not uncommon with new features, this is a sign that Reels might not be at all intuitive and therefore not all that welcoming to TikTok users.

If TikTok does end up being banned from the US, it’s entirely possible that users in the US will end up switching to Reels as a reasonable alternative. But social media is a fickle world, so nothing’s a sure bet. And if TikTok sticks around (in whatever form), then Reels risks being seen as a poor imitation, plus a confusing add-on to Instagram, thus alienating users of both platforms.