Facebook’s Instagram takes on TikTok with short-form video feature Reels – CNET

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Instagram launched a TikTok competitor called Reels on Wednesday in more than 50 countries.

Angela Lang/CNET

In the short video, a pigeon wearing a chef's hat makes a Lunchables' pizza as Italian music plays in the background. The video's creator, San Francisco art director Pablo Rochat, then picks up the mini pizza and eats it. 

The quirky video might remind you of content often found on TikTok, the popular short-video app that's recently landed in political hot water. But it isn't. Rochat created the video through Instagram Reels, a new feature the Facebook-owned photo service launched on Wednesday in more than 50 countries, including the US, UK and Australia.

"I know my audience's attention is like two seconds," Rochat said at a press conference ahead of the launch, adding he wanted to "use as little [of] their time to entertain them as much as possible."

Instagram is making a stronger bid for the short-form video audience as Chinese-owned TikTok grapples with the possibility of a US ban over national security concerns. Focusing on short videos is also part of Instagram's strategy to become a destination for entertainment, which could also entice users to spend more time on the app. That would give Facebook, already under scrutiny for possibly stifling competition by snapping up its rivals including Instagram and WhatsApp, another opportunity to make money from video ads.

Instagram Reels was in the works before the Trump administration said last month it was considering banning TikTok. Politicians worry that TikTok could be used to spy on Americans and spread propaganda during an election year. Microsoft has been in talks with ByteDance, TikTok's parent company, about buying TikTok's service in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. 

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Instagram Reels lets users create short videos like they can on TikTok. 

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Instagram Reels has already been tested in India, which was TikTok's largest market before the government banned the app along with other Chinese apps. Like the US, India cited national security concerns for the ban, which followed a fatal border clash with Chinese troops. 

Vishal Shah, vice president of product at Instagram, said people want to view more short videos on the photo app. In the last month, 45% of videos uploaded to Instagram's feed were 15 seconds or less, he said. The company started experimenting with Reels more than a year ago in Brazil.

"It's not something that's unique to our platform and others are definitely tapping into this format, whether that's TikTok or YouTube or Snap or actually before that Musical.ly and Vine," Shah said. Vine was purchased by Twitter before being shut down. Musical.ly was bought by ByteDance in 2017 and rebranded as TikTok.

Shah said that Reels is integrated into Instagram so people don't have to download another app. It leverages a lot of the creative tools within the photo app, including augmented reality effects. Users can also add music clips to their videos, similar to TikTok.

To access Reels, Instagram users open the camera and then swipe to an icon that resembles a director's clapperboard. There are options for adding music, recording video at faster or slower speeds, using a timer, and adding backgrounds. Users will be able to see all of their Instagram Reels in one place on their profile. 

Instagram Reels will be included in the app's explore tab, allowing users to discover new videos. Users can share Reels to their feed, the explore tab, a direct message or in a Story, a post that disappears after a day. The company is using both artificial intelligence and human curators to feature videos users might want to see because of their interests. That will help new creators find more followers, Shah said.

Some social media users might be wary of providing more information to Instagram because its parent company Facebook has faced numerous scandals over user privacy. When asked if Instagram uses images in videos to target users with ads, Shah said Instagram shows users ads based on the content they watch and like along with creators they interact with on the platform.  

"We use the same data for Reels that we use across Instagram so I actually wish that we were, you know, that sophisticated in terms of deep visual understanding of some of the content on the platform," Shah said.

Facebook's history of copying rivals

Facebook has copied rivals before, a practice that Snapchat and ByteDance have criticized. When Facebook launched Stories, which mimics Snapchat's ephemeral posts, some users left Snapchat because the same features were available on Instagram.

Facebook has tried to copy TikTok before, but these efforts haven't gained much traction. The company launched a standalone TikTok competitor called Lasso in late 2018 but shuttered it last month.

"Facebook has a mixed track record when it comes to copying other companies' features. Many of its attempts over the years have failed. Instagram did it extremely well with Stories, which it copied from Snapchat. I believe Instagram has a similar opportunity with Reels, but it's not a guaranteed success," eMarketer principal analyst Debra Aho Williamson said in a statement. 

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Instagram users will be able to add music to their short videos on Reels. 

Instagram

On Sunday, ByteDance accused Facebook of "plagiarism and smear" but didn't go into any more details. TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer also called out Facebook in a blog post in July about competition.

"To those who wish to launch competitive products, we say bring it on. Facebook is even launching another copycat product, Reels (tied to Instagram), after their other copycat Lasso failed quickly. But let's focus our energies on fair and open competition in service of our consumers, rather than maligning attacks by our competitor – namely Facebook – disguised as patriotism and designed to put an end to our very presence in the US," Mayer wrote.

A TikTok spokeswoman pointed to Mayer's blog when asked about Reels on Wednesday.

Facebook's practice of copying its rivals also came up at a lengthy congressional hearing about antitrust that CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified in along with the CEOs of Apple, Alphabet and Amazon last week.

Citing documents submitted to the committee, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat, said that Facebook was working on a camera feature similar to Instagram and used that to pressure Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom into agreeing to an acquisition. Documents show Systrom was worried that Facebook would go into "destroy mode" if he didn't sell the company to the social media giant. Facebook purchased Instagram in 2012 for $1 billion. Zuckerberg denied that the conversations he had with Systrom were threatening.

Shah said the inspiration for products come from different places, including other companies, and that Instagram makes changes based on consumer behavior. 

"We've been very clear in products in the past that we're inspired by other companies too," he said. "We're clear on that with TikTok with short-form video."

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