On Wednesday, Facebook-owned Instagram launched Reels, a product that is nearly a carbon copy of TikTok, in the US and more than 50 other countries, including India, Brazil, the UK and Germany.
In a Zoom demo with reporters ahead of the launch, Instagram previewed the short-form video feature, including examples of users doing coordinated dances and comedy skits, two content genres TikTok is best known for. Like TikTok, Reels allows Instagram users to create 15-second videos set to music or audio and featuring special effects.
To add insult to injury, the US launch of Reels comes as TikTok faces uncertainty about its future in the country. In recent days, the news has jumped from President Donald Trump threatening to ban the app to a potential takeover by Microsoft and then back to a shutdown if an acquisition of TikTok doesn't include a "substantial amount of money" going to the US Treasury.
"It's created almost a perfect storm for Instagram to release this thing," said Joe Gagliese, CEO of influencer marketing firm Viral Nation.
For Facebook, any additional momentum for its TikTok clone could prove to be both a boon and a burden. Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress and was grilled alongside other major tech CEOs about anti-competitive practices. Zuckerberg in particular was questioned about copying rivals.
"We've certainly adapted features that others have led in," he said.
When successful, Facebook uses it scale to surge past would-be rivals. In 2016, for example, the company launched Stories, a concept pioneered by Snapchat, where photos and videos disappear after 24 hours. Eight months later, Instagram Stories surpassed Snapchat's entire daily user base.
In the virtual demo, Instagram head of product Vishal Shah didn't dispute drawing from TikTok. "We've been very clear in products in the past that we're inspired by other companies," Shah said. "At the same time, these things are not invented in any one place. ... Everyone's kind of figuring out ways to make these products their own."
Beyond the similar format, Reels also appears to be borrowing what Jeff Couret, a digital marketing expert who consults TikTok stars, called TikTok's "biggest draw": the ability for practically anyone to go viral overnight and rack up tons of followers.
Reels can be shared on the Instagram feed or to a new dedicated section on the Explore page, which is intended to give users have a chance to get discovered even if they don't have a big following. Instagram said it will promote content using human curation as well as artificial intelligence.
Ahead of the global launch, Instagram has been working behind the scenes to give social media stars early access to the feature, likely in an attempt to drum up excitement and line up high-quality content for the launch. According to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook also offered TikTok creators financial incentives to use the new Instagram product. In response to the report, a Facebook spokesperson said in certain cases, it may help cover production costs for influencers' "creative ideas."
For now, though, Instagram won't give social media stars a way to earn money through creating Reels. (YouTube, for example, allows creators to earn money from ads running on their videos. TikTok offers influencers the ability to make money through livestreams and it recently established a fund to pay creators, too).
"We're really just focused on getting the product to work first before we think about monetization options," Instagram's Shah said.
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