By Nicole Nguyen
If you've scrolled through Instagram recently, you might have
noticed more dancing. More lip syncing, too.
These short looped videos are part of Instagram's new Reels
feature. But it won't look new to any Gen Zer. That's because Reels
looks and feels just like TikTok, the addictive app so many teens
(and -- let's be honest -- some grown-ups) can't get enough of.
It's not the first time Instagram has found inspiration
elsewhere. Here are a few features Instagram has adopted over the
-- Stories -- Snapchat, 2013; Instagram, 2016
-- Augmented-reality selfie filters -- Snapchat, 2015;
-- Geostickers -- Snapchat, 2016; Instagram, 2017
-- Disappearing messages -- Snapchat, 2012; Instagram, 2016
Yes, among the trendy rivals Instagram and its parent company
Facebook Inc. have used concepts from, none got tapped more than
Now, TikTok is the focus of Facebook's flattery. Reels, which
can be viewed in Instagram's explore tab or main feed, landed in
the U.S. on Wednesday. And there's no doubt it's a
Both platforms offer sophisticated yet easy-to-use mobile video
editing software. Both allow people to create, distribute and
consume videos free. Both play the super-short clips repeatedly
until you swipe to the next. And at the heart of the videos is
music: The songs can be the soundtrack to a dance challenge or the
punchline to a meme.
The similarities between TikTok and Reels run deeper than
function -- the apps look and feel the same, too. To move between
videos in the feed, you swipe up or down the same way. The video
pages look alike, with the username stacked on top of the caption
and music on the bottom in the same order. The audio pages, down to
the placement of buttons, are similarly oriented. Instagram even
mimicked TikTok's play icon and video view count display on
Not to mention: Many Reels I watched were actually imported
Copying was never a foregone conclusion. Others have iterated on
TikTok's central idea: Triller and Byte, two TikTok rivals, are
both platforms for short-form social video -- and they managed to
come up with more creative variations on the same theme. Triller
splits videos into separate music and non-music feeds, for
instance, while Byte is organized by interests.
There are some differences. TikTok limits users to a specific
15-second slice of a song. On Reels, you can choose which part of
the track to use. Reels limits videos to 15 seconds, while TikTok
videos can be up to a minute. Reels has an alignment tool that
helps video makers with transitions. TikTok doesn't. You can record
voice-overs on TikTok. No can do on Reels -- for now. Those details
aside, they're fundamentally the same.
"Our goal is to keep Instagram easy to use while also adding
relevant features and experiences that meet our community where
they are. By responding to a demand, we're offering more choices,
which we believe is better for consumers," said an Instagram
A Snap Inc. spokeswoman declined to comment on Facebook's
historic fast follow of its features, but the company did track its
archcompetitor's aggressive tactics in a file called "Project
Voldemort," according to a Wall Street Journal report. Snap
struggled with user retention following its 2017 IPO but managed to
rebound last year.
A TikTok spokeswoman sent me its official response: this TikTok
video, featuring anthropomorphized versions of TikTok, Snapchat,
YouTube and Twitter accusing Instagram of creative block.
"Do you ever have an actual original idea?" the human TikTok
posed to the human Instagram. "Hashtags!" the Instagram replied.
"Uh no," Twitter retorted. "What about IGTV?" pressed Instagram.
"Really?" said YouTube.
Facebook isn't alone -- tech companies often trade ideas. In
fact, TikTok itself copied its double-tap-to-like action from
"We are clear that we are inspired by other companies," said
Vishal Shah, Instagram's head of product, in a briefing with
reporters before Reels' launch. "At the same time, these things
aren't invented in one place." He pointed to Facebook's News Feed,
whose style was adopted by other social-media sites, like
Mr. Shah added that TikTok "didn't invent short-form video but
did innovate on it," and pointed to other apps such as Vine and
Musical.ly as early pioneers.
"I think Instagram is being smart, and I think TikTok will need
to handle the competition in some exceptional way in order to not
lose market share," said Lonnie Marts III, a comedian who has
accumulated over two million followers on TikTok and 75,000
Instagram followers. "Although a lot of Instagram users don't like
even seeing Reels on their feed." A comment on one of his videos
reads, "Feels like that stupid app TikTok is just on Instagram
There is little legal recourse for drawing inspiration from
software rivals, which may explain Facebook's candor. "From the
standpoint of competition law, copying things that are in the
public domain are OK," said Pamela Samuelson, professor of law at
Berkeley Law School. "In terms of copyright, features of computer
programs, generally speaking, aren't protected. A firm copying
another firm's feature is pro-competitive, and consistent with
intellectual-property rules." Were this otherwise, we might not
have a thriving global automobile industry, for example.
Expression, not ideas, is legally protected, says Erik Stallman,
assistant clinical professor of law at Berkeley Law School. In
other words, Instagram replicating TikTok's play icon isn't
problematic legally. "Copyright protection does not extend to a
design layout, as it's only a template for expression rather than
protectable expression itself," Mr. Stallman explained.
Each cloned feature becomes a defensive moat for Instagram --
the more the app can offer, the less its users, especially ones in
the coveted teen-to-20s category, need to spend off Instagram, on
apps like TikTok. Only the added features make Instagram more
annoying to use.
Once a simple photo-sharing app, Instagram now offers ephemeral
social media, short-form video, long-form video, video chat,
private messaging, inspiration bookmarking and shopping. I started
spending most of my time on Instagram instead of Facebook because
Facebook was too bloated. Now it feels like Instagram is Facebook
Instagram may not need much of a defense after all. TikTok is
currently embroiled in a complicated geopolitical entanglement due
to growing tensions with China, where the app's parent company,
ByteDance Ltd., is based. President Trump recently set a 45-day
deadline for an American company to purchase TikTok's U.S.
Still, it will likely take more than a library of hit songs and
video-editing tools for Instagram to re-create TikTok's success. On
TikTok, you don't need an account to become addicted. It's pure
entertainment, like TV, without the terrible fear-of-missing-out
feeling you get by looking at posts from friends and family.
But unlike TV, a finely tuned algorithm figures out what you see
next. And that algorithm is freakishly good. You scroll and scroll
until you're physically exhausted and can't scroll any longer.
Instagram's recommendations aren't quite there yet. I watched a
haphazard mix of imported TikToks, manic 15-second cooking videos
and clips of celebrities...being celebrities. There's little of the
eclectic weird magic found on TikTok's main feed, its personalized
"For You" page.
"For a while, being on Instagram felt a bit stale and robotic
and TikTok actually made me excited again about creating content,"
said Moti Ankari, who has 190,000 Instagram followers and tens of
thousands on TikTok. "TikTok really helped me escape the
"TikTok has a ride-or-die community of creators that truly love
the platform and the community," while Instagram is a "massive
media network, " said Everett Williams, a fashion influencer with
over 180,000 followers on both platforms. He added that while
TikTok is "truly special," Instagram is a better platform for
engaging with brands.
Reels' biggest problem is that there's simply not enough content
to binge-watch yet. Some of TikTok's most popular stars, such as
Charli D'Amelio, who has 77.1 million followers, and her sister,
Dixie, with 32.9 million followers, have yet to make a Reel.
Until Reels has me hooked, you can find me on TikTok. No, not
dancing, but scrolling... and scrolling... and scrolling....
Send your Reels and TikTok questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Write to Nicole Nguyen at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
August 09, 2020 09:14 ET (13:14 GMT)
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