Reels vs TikTok

Last February, I wrote a product teardown of the 10 core product mechanics that make TikTok such a deeply innovative and successful product. At the time, I asserted that TikTok’s breakthrough patterns of social design were so countercultural to the dominant follow-and-feed model that the product would be hard for existing large networks to successfully copy.

Six months later, with the launch of Instagram’s Reels product, we are about to see that thesis put to the test.

In short order, we will find out whether Instagram will be able to build on TikTok’s innovation to boost its own engagement and stunt the growth of its upstart competitor, as happened with Snap, or if TikTok will turn out to be more meaningfully defensible.

Setting aside the geopolitics of TikTok currently in play, and assuming that the app continues to operate in the U.S., here are the key product considerations suggesting that this time the original innovator’s success is going to be much tougher to copy.

1. Media Format Commodification Will Slow TikTok’s Growth

A novel media format can be a powerful draw when it is new and unique, but that power quickly dissipates once the format becomes ubiquitous.

Think back to when your favorite newspaper went to color, or when networks started shooting certain TV shows in high definition. Think about the first time you saw Instagram’s hyperreality of touched-up photos, or Snap stories.

Initially the new format feels unique and engaging, but once the format is broadly adopted and available, users become blind to it and take it for granted.

This is clearly what is going to happen with TikTok’s style of short-form music-synced video.

To date, the format alone has been incredibly powerful for driving growth and engagement. People have flocked to download the app just to see it and try something new. The uniqueness of the format makes viral growth easier as people explain what TikTok is and share links to it. Even for existing users, opening the app feels differentiated and novel.

With the introduction of Reels (and the likelihood of the TikTok format coming to many, many more social media properties in the coming months), the advantage TikTok has had from inventing a new media format will rapidly wear off. The format will rapidly feel generic and expected, rather than novel and different.

This will undoubtedly make growth for TikTok harder.

The draw to try TikTok—to see the novel format—will decrease. The initial onboarding experience to TikTok will seem stale, and likely there will be higher dropoff rates. The media format will quickly lose its particular association with the TikTok service when reshared and liked in other services. Even for loyal existing users of the product, opening the TikTok app isn’t going to feel as magically differentiated as it has to date (this is certainly the case for me just a few days in).

So, forgetting the product mechanics and quality for a moment, the simple fact that Instagram (and certainly other social media products soon to follow) will make TikTok’s innovative media format ubiquitous instead of unique will certainly create an uphill battle for the app.

2. TikTok’s Graph of Random Reward Should Be Relatively Defensible Against Instagram’s Influencer-Dominated Graph

Part of the reason Instagram so successfully cloned Snap Stories is that Stories represented an innovation in media format, but not a new graph of relationships. The people you wanted to follow on a product like Instagram for nice photos turned out to be exactly the same people whose Stories you wanted to see.

If TikTok will face challenges with the commodification of its media format, the fact that the best creators of TikTok videos aren’t the same set of people I want to follow on Instagram is a core part of the app’s defensibility. As I have written before, when a media format leads to a distinct new graph, it makes it highly defensible.

It is even better that not only is the set of great TikTok creators different from the Instagram set, but, on TikTok you don’t necessarily want to follow anyone. The explicitly algorithm-first (versus relationship-first) design of the TikTok product, coupled with the way memes and content work on the system, means that in TikTok you frequently find one-hit wonders where an odd or random person does something wonderful you want to see, but isn’t someone you want to follow on an ongoing basis.

This neutralizes a huge general advantage of existing platforms looking to compete directly with the TikTok ecosystem, because the TikTok approach is, in a sense, anti-celebrity and anti–social capital.

So, while people do talk of wanting to be “TikTok famous,” that fame, with rare exceptions, is far more like the fleeting 15 minutes of fame from producing something that becomes very popular as a one-off, rather than methodically building a brand-name following. In this respect, the core mechanism of TikTok is far more akin to “America’s Funniest Home Videos” than it is like the hierarchical Hollywood-style social scene of Instagram’s graph.

The upshot is that not only are the personalities that tend to get followed on Instagram not the best at producing TikTok content—in fact, part of the brilliance of TikTok is that almost no one is good at constantly producing great content in its media format—but that quality comes almost randomly from everywhere. This gives the product meaningful differentiation and defensibility.

So, where Instagram meaningfully hurt Snap because its graph wasn’t differentiated, Twitter has largely survived Facebook’s assault because the graph of relationships and conversations (and therefore the content that works on TikTok) is very different from what works on Facebook. TikTok fits more in the latter than the former camp, and as a result has a strong weapon for defending itself.

3. Instagram’s Identity and Distribution Framework Might Prove to Be a Liability

If you agree that Instagram’s existing graph of relationships isn’t an advantage against TikTok, you might go a step further and even view it—along with how people treat real identity on Instagram—as an outright liability.

One of the qualities that makes TikTok so compelling is that since the product is explicitly not about following friends and family, it frees creators to be particularly odd, biting and niche in the content they produce.

Creators on TikTok are able to put out content without the fear of Mom seeing what they are making, and also to some degree with confidence that the algorithm will route whatever odd or niche thing they do to the specific audience that is interested in it (and not everyone else).

Instagram already struggles with the problem that content creators in many cases want space to make content without putting it in front of people with whom they have real relationships. This reality is why things like “finsta” (fake Instagram) accounts are so popular among teens.

But Instagram for most people still has the liability of “followers” or real relationships seeing their content, instead of creating a free space to share niche content. In this respect, the strength of Instagram is also potentially its weakness.

Can an identity-driven feed and a random content-discovery mode fit into the same brand and app? Perhaps. That is certainly what it looks like Instagram is going for with the core feed and then Reels as the most important part of the Discover tab. But it remains to be seen if two such alternate realities can successfully coexist in one space.

4. Instagram Faces the Problem of the Zero-Sum Trade-Off in How to Distribute Attention

Further to the question of coexistence of alternative models in a single app, right now Instagram opens to a feed of the people users follow. Getting to the Discover page (which the random-discovery format of Reels is rapidly dominating) requires an extra click.

TikTok always opens to the random-discovery For You page, and users can technically click over to a feed of content from people they follow (though I am not sure if anyone uses that feature).

The most aggressive thing Instagram could do to address TikTok’s advantage would be to make the Discover page come first when users open the app, and make users click through to the feed of people they follow; however, such a move would come at an enormous cost in the engagement and value of the Instagram product for top producers.

Since you can’t have it both ways, the question is, how much would Instagram be willing to risk to make its own product less compelling for its existing use cases in order to go after TikTok’s discovery?

This is ultimately a zero-sum decision. Introducing something new will impose a real cost in engagement and value on the existing platform mechanics. Instagram is clearly already sacrificing some of the Discover engagement it had to fit in Reels, but the question is how far it can go in this direction.

It is worth noting that even if Instagram hadn’t released Reels, the reality of this zero-sum trade-off was bound to come into focus for TikTok at some point anyway. Too many TikTok creators point to alternative social networks such as Instagram as the place to follow them because they don’t trust TikTok’s algorithm to continue featuring them, and they want a more secure place to reach their followers. But with the release of Reels, it is clear that both applications face this trade-off between predictability and discovery, and each is starting with the alternative strength of the other.

5. It Isn’t Clear if Instagram Can Effectively Buy Its Way Into Competition With TikTok via Popular Creators

If a product or form of media is “head-driven,” meaning the top producers generate the most interesting content consistently, then it is relatively easy to buy your way into the competition’s best content just by paying the key creators.

Companies like Netflix and Amazon have clearly done this in Hollywood, and Instagram is obviously doing this with the small number of true TikTok celebrities it has courted.

The problem with this strategy alone, however, is that TikTok is far more dominated by the “fat middle” of creators versus just a few head celebrities. Most of the best content comes from the spectrum of many random creators.

To draw in that fat middle, you can give producers a lot of free distribution—and effectively free likes and comments—but this is problematic for two reasons.

First, while a company like Facebook might have nearly unlimited cash, it doesn’t have unlimited free distribution to pass around. Giving the fat middle access to views on Instagram explicitly comes at the expense of engagement that would otherwise go to its head producers, on which today’s overall experience relies.

Second, driving allegiance through distribution might encourage cross-posting, but it is unlikely to pry creators away from TikTok or create content that is exclusive to Instagram. So ultimately, strategies to “buy” midlevel producers on TikTok and encourage them to come over to Instagram are both costly and less effective than if head producers dominated TikTok.

6. The Challenge Around Memes, Music Licensing and the Creator Ecosystem

The biggest issue Instagram is going to face in addressing TikTok’s advantages, however, is that the creative process around TikTok is far deeper and more nuanced than most people realize.

Instagram can clone TikTok’s video-editing tools (and likely vastly improve them), but what it will have a harder time doing is chipping away at the meme generation hooks and the music ecosystem that has grown up around the TikTok ecosystem.

On the question of memes, TikTok has built a pretty sophisticated set of tools to help creators hop on and extend memes that are bubbling up through the system, usually around audio clips and challenges. There are plenty of memes on Instagram, but Tiktok’s design dedicates a lot of space to fostering and accelerating these memes. This will be harder for Instagram to copy because it simply lacks the real estate in its app.

Regarding music clips, there is an interesting question of how things will play out. It is possible that music rights will become dramatically more valuable as TikTok and Instagram duke it out, using exclusive access to the key music that drives memes to block the competing service.

A world in which TikTok moved to exclusively license specific music clips as it spotted memes bubbling up. so that its videos couldn’t easily migrate to Instagram, would make music licensing an offensive tool for social media rather than simply a toll. That would be a fascinating competitive dimension to introduce.

Competition at Its Best

Reels will affect TikTok’s growth, at least in the short term. Instagram will expose millions of people to the TikTok video format before they go to TikTok to find it for themselves, and that will slow growth. Many creators will certainly repost TikTok-style videos to Instagram for incremental distribution, and it is likely that the biggest hits on each platform will end up reposted on the other.

That said, I think it would be a mistake to underappreciate the depth of what TikTok has created or think these two factors alone, which were bound to happen over time, would sink the ship. If anything, we are just in the early innings.

TikTok has done an excellent job of innovating across identity, distribution, celebrity, mixing skill and reward for distribution, and ranking in a way that I believe creates a deep well of engaging content and joy. I don’t think Instagram, from where it sits today, will be able to follow TikTok fully down this path, and I think TikTok will remain strong and innovative. Tiktok’s model of 15 minutes of fame and inclusiveness is just too different from Instagram’s entrenched, head-dominated aristocracy for the two worlds to merge seamlessly.

To that end, I will just say that while the issue is complicated, I very much hope to see TikTok remain in the U.S. as a vibrant and thriving ecosystem. The TikTok product represents exactly what we want to see in the innovation space.

TikTok brought several new and exciting ideas to social media, and it has forced enormous incumbents to innovate, in the process bringing joyful new experiences for consumers. TikTok’s agitation in the marketplace has made social media better across apps and for all users.

So in a sense TikTok, and the response of Instagram, are demonstrating capitalism and competition at its best. We are all richer for it, and I hope that the sparring between these two and other players will drive innovation for years to come.