Facebook launches Reels — a ‘clone’ of TikTok

What could Facebook's TikTok clone mean to the world?
6 August 2020

Instagram welcomes its own short form video feature, Reels. Source: Unsplash

  • Facebook is launching a TikTok alternative that aims to attract TikTok creators
  • Facebook launched a similar app two years ago only to shut it down due to the low audience

TikTok has had the hot seat for months. Beginning with an explosion of users and content in the thick of the pandemic, the video-sharing app has since become embroiled in some serious geopolitical tit for tat, where concerns over its links to China have seen it booted from India and facing mounting scrutiny and threats from the US and its allies. 

Now, as it looks for a US buyer in efforts to sever ties from Chinese parent Bytedance and put to bed concerns for good (it’s even announced plans to spend US$500 million on an Irish data center as “a symbol of our long-term commitment to Europe”), the firm faces a fresh challenge altogether: the launch a ‘rip off’ clone by Facebook called Reels.

An announcement from Facebook has attempted to divert TikTok creators anxious over the app’s future to its platform: “Today we’re announcing Instagram Reels: a new way to create and discover short, entertaining videos on Instagram.[…] Record and edit 15-second multi-clip videos with audio, effects, and new creative tools,” its official blog post states

The standalone Reels app is free and will be available in the App Store and Google Play. Looping in Facebook’s other properties, it allows users to share their content on their stories and profiles on Instagram. 

Perhaps the worst timing for TikTok, the choice to launch now is an intriguing one for Facebook too, which is caught up in an ongoing high-profile Big Tech antitrust probe. The social media giant is under has been described as generating a “data monopoly” aided by the acquisition of large entities such as Instagram and WhatsApp, which have seen it become the owner of four of the most popular social networking and communication apps. 

But the way in which it won those deals is also under the microscope. During its hearing, email correspondence was revealed by the founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, which has been interpreted by some as an indication that the social media giant acquires companies that pose a threat in order to eliminate the competition. However, those firms that Facebook doesn’t manage to buy out, can face going head-to-head with it.

One of the reasons Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom gave to his board about the sale of the company to Facebook was that “if Facebook took measures to copy Instagram or target the app directly, that would make it a lot more difficult to grow.” Facebook’s orientation guide for new starters reportedly includes the sentence, “If we don’t create the thing that kills Facebook, something else will.”

This isn’t Facebook’s first attempt to challenge TikTok. The social media giant launched Lasso (cited as a TikTok clone) in 2018 but soon pulled the plug on the app when it didn’t capture the audience share it wanted. 

However, the stakes are different now as TikTok is in a shaky position. Several countries such as Japan, the UK, and Australia are contemplating following India’s footsteps in a nationwide ban of the popular video-sharing app. TikTok’s ban in India revealed how the social media void it leaves is swiftly filled by other contenders. 

Hours after TikTok’s ban in India came into effect, a tsunami of new sign-ups flooded the servers of Roposo, one of TikTok’s Bangalore-based competitors. The hike in new sign-ups continued throughout the weeks of June, and Roposo hit a new high of 500,000 new users an hour. To date, Roposo recorded more than 85 million downloads and up to two billion video views per day.

If a potential deal with Microsoft falls through and a US ban on TikTok goes ahead, we may see a similar pattern playing out where creators are forced to migrate and seek an alternative platform. Against the prospect of a weakened TikTok or an absent one, Facebook benefits from the uncertainty, and Reels will be ready to catch a spillover of users. 

In addition to converting TikTok creators to use its Instagram platform, it’ll be interesting to see if TikTok’s entrepreneurial spirit will be translated to Reels. The recent launch of TikTok For Businesses aims to utilize its short-form video formats and easy-to-use editing tools for self-serve advertising. Global brands from Nike, Mercedes Benz to local SMBs (small-medium businesses) have enlisted the new enterprise platform.