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Instagram video service launches as TikTok rival

by Compiled by Democrat-Gazette Staff From Wire Reports | August 6, 2020 at 1:58 a.m.
Instagram Reels lets users shoot and edit videos and watch others in a scrolling feed. The feature poses a major competitive risk to TikTok. (Instagram handout photo)

Facebook-owned Instagram released its new service, Reels, in the United States and dozens of other countries Wednesday, adding a tab to the existing app that will let users make and watch short-form videos -- just like TikTok.

Reels' U.S. launch was timed just a week after Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by Congress about complaints of anticompetitive practices, including whether it copies ideas from smaller competitors.

Meanwhile, TikTok has been struggling through a geopolitical morass with President Donald Trump. The White House, which has said TikTok is a national security threat because of its ownership by the Chinese internet company ByteDance, has said the app must sell its U.S. business within 45 days or face a ban.

Just like TikTok, Reels lets users shoot and edit videos, add music and scroll through a feed of others' clips. The biggest difference seems to be the length of video -- TikTok allows videos of up to 60 seconds, and Instagram caps them at 15 seconds.

The timing of the launch is coincidental, and the feature has been in development for more than a year, said Instagram's product chief, Vishal Shah.

Shah said TikTok had done "amazing work" but that it did not invent the short-form video market.

"Inspiration for products comes from everywhere," he said. "We've been very clear in products in the past that were inspired by other companies, too."

Instagram and its parent, Facebook, have a long history of successfully remaking products introduced by others, tweaking them and releasing them to great popularity. Facebook's On This Day feature is reminiscent of one first launched by TimeHop. The company's Messenger Rooms video chat feels like a cross between Zoom and HouseParty. Most notably, Instagram Stories debuted in 2016 as a virtual mirror of rival Snapchat's stories feature.

Snapchat's user growth slowed after Instagram Stories was released. Snap now says its app has 238 million daily active users. Instagram reports that Stories has more than 500 million.

Facebook has faced criticism for years over copying others, something that bubbled up again last week when Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., questioned Zuckerberg during an antitrust hearing. Jayapal pulled up receipts of old email exchanges in which the CEO told an Instagram founder that he was building a copycat camera service as he tried to buy Instagram. She asked whether Facebook copies from its competitors. Zuckerberg didn't directly answer her question.

Reels will feel different from TikTok, Instagram's Shah said, and will be tied to the Instagram system as a whole, a valuable proposition for creators who already have big followings on the app.

TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer wrote in a blog post that the company welcomes competition from Facebook.

"To those who wish to launch competitive products, we say bring it on," he wrote.

TikTok has been the target of mounting attacks from Trump and some of his supporters over concerns that the company might be feeding U.S. user data through its Chinese parent company to China's government. TikTok has continually insisted it is not handing over data to the Chinese government, saying it stores American customers' data in the United States.

But that hasn't eased the concerns of Trump, who at one point suggested he would ban TikTok in the country in retaliation for China's role in spreading the novel coronavirus. He has been exploring options to either ban TikTok or force ByteDance to divest from the U.S. operations. Microsoft is in talks to acquire TikTok in the U.S.

It's possible for both products to succeed, Forrester analyst Jessica Liu said.

"Social networks are not a zero sum game in which if one social network wins, the others automatically lose," she said in an email. Facebook will "continue to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks because they have the resources, R&D power, and (at the moment) time."

ByteDance has said Facebook's copying, as well as its claims that Chinese-owned apps may not be as committed to data security or free speech, amount to "plagiarism and defamation." But ByteDance also didn't invent the short edited-video format. It was popularized by Vine, the app owned by Twitter Inc. that launched in 2013 and shut down before TikTok's rise.

Instagram still might have a tough time persuading TikTok stars to fully switch over. Influencer and actress Carrie Berk, who has nearly 560,000 followers on TikTok, said she will not leave the app unless she is forced to.

"Obviously, I love TikTok; I'm going to stick with it until the very end," the 17-year-old said.

But Berk also understands the power of Instagram, where she has 340,000 followers, and she does plan to use both. She's already been testing Reels and said it seems promising, though she couldn't tell how well videos were performing because the product hadn't yet been available to the public.

Information for this article was contributed by Rachel Lerman of The Washington Post, by Sarah Frier of Bloomberg News and by Mike Isaac of The New York Times.


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