Facebook Inc.’s FB -0.34% Instagram has launched a short-video feature in the U.S., challenging the empire that Chinese social-media upstart TikTok has built on user-generated dance videos, comedy skits and viral challenges.
The home-market debut Wednesday of Reels continues a practice within Facebook—and elsewhere in Silicon Valley—in which it takes inspiration from competitors and then launches similar features in its own products. Reels is a major investment for Instagram, showcased prominently within the app and buttressed by video creators being paid to participate in its launch.
Four years ago Instagram rolled out Instagram Stories, in which photos disappear after 24 hours—similar to the signature disappearing-messages feature within Snap Inc.’s Snapchat. Instagram Stories has become one of the most popular of the app’s services.
In a blog post last month, TikTok Chief Executive Kevin Mayer called Reels a “copycat product” and added, “To those who wish to launch competitive products, we say bring it on.”
Robby Stein, product director for Reels, credited TikTok with popularizing a new video format but said Instagram would distinguish its version by adapting it to the desires of users.
“At the end of the day, these products are just a piece of video, a creative tool, and a way to look at it,” he said in an interview. “We’ve really focused on how this type of format could work within the Instagram community.”
The U.S. launch of Reels comes at a difficult time for TikTok, owned by the Chinese company ByteDance Ltd. TikTok has been banned in India amid geopolitical tensions with China, and faces a similar threat from President Trump. The White House is pushing for a sale of TikTok, and Microsoft Corp. has emerged as a suitor for its U.S. operations.
The competitive landscape in short video is also becoming more crowded, with users downloading apps including Zynn, byte, Triller and Clash on their mobile devices.
Instagram says it has been pleased with the response to Reels, already launched in countries including Brazil, India and France, but has provided no usage metrics. But if Reels is a U.S. hit, it could make Instagram one of the world’s most popular short-video apps. Instagram has more than one billion users world-wide, while TikTok has 100 million users in the U.S. and hundreds of millions more globally.
How Reels shows videos marks a significant change from Instagram’s current approach. Instead of primarily highlighting content from a user’s friends and specific accounts they follow, Reels will promote the most-engaging videos from across the platform—another feature shared with TikTok.
“We’re taking a very creator-centric approach to ranking that will hopefully result in people getting discovered and gaining a following,” said Vishal Shah, Instagram’s product chief, in an interview before the launch. One measure of success, he said, would be if users become global superstars based on their Reels videos.
While there are differences between Reels and TikTok—Instagram limits videos to 15 seconds, rather than a minute, and offers proprietary special effects—users in countries where Reels is available have pronounced it a doppleganger.
“It’s not unique at all—it’s a complete copy of TikTok,” said Alec Wilcock, a social-media commentator based in France, in a June video review of Reels.
Krishna Subramanian, founder of influencer marketing platform Captiv8 Inc., said the prospect of an obscure teenager becoming famous was key to TikTok’s success—and could be deployed by Instagram as well.
“One of the things that keeps people producing content is the chance that you might win the lottery and go viral,” he said. “If you haven’t gotten it yet, someone in your circle has.”
Reels isn’t Facebook’s first TikTok challenger. In 2018, the company released Lasso, a stand-alone app from its New Product Experimentation group that duplicated many of TikTok’s features. But it failed to catch on and was shut down in June, as the global rollout of Reels was in preparation.
“Lasso was an experiment that was totally separate,” said Instagram’s Mr. Stein, distinguishing it from Reels, integrated into the heart of Instagram’s products. “Reels is a big part of the next chapter for Instagram for sure.”
During his conversation with reporters, Mr. Shah noted that Reels had been in the works long before TikTok’s current distress and declined to speculate on how the threats to its rival would play out. But Captiv8’s Mr. Subramanian called the timing fortuitous for Instagram.
In the past few weeks, TikTok content creators have been following Mr. Trump’s threats to ban the app, with some producing videos in which they jokingly packed a suitcase. The same jitters have been felt by advertisers, Mr. Subramanian said.
“One minute you’re telling people to go off Facebook and Instagram toward TikTok, and the next TikTok might be disappearing,” he said.
Instagram is in a position to bolster the fortunes of TikTok users who jump to Reels, said Mr. Subramanian. During past launches, like of the ephemeral posts in Instagram Stories, Instagram has heavily promoted content using the new formats, subsidizing their adoption. Ahead of the Reels launch, Instagram also spent heavily on recruiting content creators from TikTok, the Journal reported last week.
Instagram has lots of tools in its toolbox, Mr. Subramanian said. “If they give creators money and those creators hit the lottery in terms of views and engagement, they’ll likely succeed.”
Write to Jeff Horwitz at [email protected]
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