TikTok's short-form vlogging app is a very hot commodity in the social media world of late. Between the Apple App Store and Alphabet's Google Play Store, TikTok (owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance) has been downloaded more than 1.5 billion times (including 123 million downloads in the U.S.) since its creation in 2016.
But the existing social media giants aren't sitting idly by as TikTok takes over. Witness Facebook (META -1.77%) and its Instagram platform, which last month began to test a new feature that will look awfully similar to what TikTok offers.
Instagram's newest feature hasn't been rolled out in the U.S. yet (so far, it is only available in Brazil). It's clear, though, that this is a feature designed to help Instagram ward off a TikTok takeover. Will it work?
Instagram and the TikTok threat
Tech giant Facebook has long been the king of social media. It eclipsed prior efforts like MySpace and has never been truly rivaled by latecomers (including Google Plus). To put things in perspective, Twitter has 126 million daily active users to Facebook's 1.2 billion.
When promising social media rivals have emerged, Facebook has generally done one of two things: bought them out (as was the case with Instagram, which was originally an independent rival) or copied their features. With Instagram, Facebook gained a foothold in the smaller and more specific worlds of microblogging and image-focused platforms; when Instagram began to see intense competition from Snap (SNAP 0.33%), Facebook simply copied Snapchat's most successful feature -- "stories," which allow users to post images and videos to a feed and then allows those images to expire after a specific period of time -- and put it on both Instagram and Facebook.
Snapchat has since become a less serious problem for Facebook and (in particular) Instagram; it has been a disastrous year for the platform, though recent signs are a bit better. Now there's a new problem: TikTok, a platform for super-short videos. TikTok has succeeded where Twitter's short-form vlogging platform, the now-defunct Vine, failed. Tiktok's 1.5 billion downloads would be impressive enough even if it did not appear to still be growing in popularity. Crucially, TikTok is popular among younger users. Facebook's user base trends older, which makes Instagram's younger user base even more important to the company. Facebook does not want to lose ground to TikTok.
This brings us to the newest Instagram feature. Called "Reels," it's an add-on to the stories feature that will allow users to create 15-second videos set to music. The feature is live only in Brazil (where it is called "Cenas"), but it seems destined to arrive in the United States and other markets soon. Mark Zuckerberg may dispute TikTok's popularity, but Facebook's actions tell another story.
It's important to note, though, that TikTok has always been designed to court users who want to create scripted content and broadcast their content to larger audiences. TikTok took a social media platform and made it a bit more like YouTube: a place to earn fans, not just a following. Broadly speaking, Instagram's user base still uses the platform in the old Facebook style -- that is, to share moments and memories rather than works of comedy or art. On the other hand, as TechCrunch's Josh Constine observes, Instagram's more private feel could end up being an asset: The privacy possibilities could act as an incubator for less bold creators, potentially increasing the number of stars that Instagram could give birth to.
Ultimately, though, Instagram's advantages may be a bit more concrete than that. Instagram had a billion monthly active users (MAUs are a much tougher metric than downloads) at last count, and Facebook's roughly 2.5 billion MAUs dwarfs TikTok at roughly 800 million MAUs. That means a larger potential audience for this new feature, especially if Facebook (the company) can leverage its huge user base as social media platform to entice would-be creators over to Instagram rather than TikTok. In social media, size matters; and when innovations like TikTok's can simply be copied by the larger players, it's easy to imagine the big boys staying on top.