Oh wow, Instagram Reels is trying to be even more like TikTok you say? What a surprise.
Instagram’s currently tweaking the design of the main Reels screen in the app, with users in India now seeing a new ‘Following’ tab alongside the main Reels feed.
As you can see in this example, posted by app researcher Salman Memon, Indian users now have a ‘Following’ tab a side-swipe away, providing another way to scroll through your latest Reels clips, in different categories.
Which mirrors TikTok’s ‘Following’ and ‘For You’ feed approach, with the algorithmically recommended clips in ‘For You’ enabling the app to showcase a much broader range of popular video clips.
That’s been the key to TikTok’s success. Rather than limiting your content streams to your personal network, TikTok’s able to take the best content, on an unlimited range of topics, and show them to you based on your interests. That means that the most popular clips have more chance to succeed, regardless of who each user is following, and while you can also filter through the latest uploads from people that you know and like, many users find that the main ‘For You’ feed is enough to give them their short-form video fix.
Reels has taken a similar approach with its Reels tab feed, while content from creators that you follow is now inserted into your main IG feed display. But with this alternating feed approach, you would have a more Reels-specific way to check out clips from the accounts that you follow, which could help to boost engagement, by further leaning into the short-form video trend.
Though even then, the true secret sauce for TikTok is its algorithm, which is increasingly good at learning what you like, and showing you more and more of that.
As outlined by Eugene Wei, TikTok’s entire UI is constructed around algorithmic optimization.
“Everything you do from the moment the video begins playing is signal as to your sentiment towards that video. Do you swipe up to the next video before it has even finished playing? An implicit (though borderline explicit) signal of disinterest. Did you watch it more than once, letting it loop a few times? Did you share the video through the built-in share pane? If you tap the bottom right spinning LP icon and watch more videos with that same soundtrack, that’s additional signal as to your tastes.”
In addition to this, TikTok’s internal classifiers as to what’s actually in each video clip are very specific, and it’s this loop of direct feedback and intricate entity labeling that makes TikTok’s system so good at showing you more of what want to see.
Instagram Reels isn’t at that same level yet. Though it is working on it.
In Meta’s most recent earnings call, CEO Mark Zuckerberg made an interesting note about the company’s increasing reliance on AI recommendations, as opposed to implicit signals based on your social graph.
As per Zuckerberg:
“While we're experiencing an increase in short-form video, we're also seeing a major shift in feeds from being almost exclusively curated by your social graph or follow graph to now having more of your feed recommended by AI, even if the content wasn't posted by a friend or someone you follow. Social content from friends and people and businesses you follow will continue being a lot of the most valuable, engaging and differentiated content for our services, but now also being able to accurately recommend content from the whole universe that you don't follow directly unlocks a large amount of interesting and useful videos and posts that you might have otherwise missed.”
Which sounds like TikTok, right? Meta’s social graph has long been its key differentiator, enabling it to keep you informed as to what your friends and family are doing, and are interested in. But now, broadening that scope is more important.
“Overall, I think about the AI that we're building not just as a recommendation system for short-form video, but as a Discovery Engine that can show you all of the most interesting content that people have shared across our systems. In the future, I think that people will increasingly turn to AI-based Discovery Engines to entertain them, teach them things, and connect them with people who share their interests. I believe our investments in AI, all the different types of content we support, and our work to build the best platforms for creators to make a living will increasingly set our services apart from the rest of the industry and drive our success.”
It’s an interesting shift, because as noted, Facebook, in particular, has long prioritized content from family and friends, and with more users than any other app, by a significant margin, that’s been a winning formula - while other platforms have been forced to find new and better ways to showcase the best content in their apps on a broader scale.
Reddit does this well, through crowd-sourced moderation (up and downvotes). Twitter remains horrendously bad at discovery. But TikTok has mastered it, to a large degree, which is why it’s so compelling, and has become such a time sink for people looking for quick-hit entertainment.
There are some questionable elements within this, in that TikTok feeds into more concerning interests by showing users more and more of the same. But it’s effectively shown that AI recommendations can be an effective way to maximize engagement, without the need for a social graph, opening up more competition in the social media space.
Now Meta’s trying to catch up - though including a ‘Following’ tab will also help to maintain that more close social connection aspect, something that TikTok is now also working to better incorporate as it looks to move into broader social connection.
Really, the ultimate social app would incorporate the two, facilitating optimal content discovery to maximize user engagement, as well as social connection to make it a more sticky, more universal experience. Social elements remain a critical component, while integrating such also means that users can conduct more of their sharing and engagement activity within a single app. If your friends are all sharing updates in TikTok, you don’t need to go to Facebook, while if you can keep finding the best, latest memes and trending content, Instagram becomes less relevant.
The same goes for Snapchat, or Pinterest as TikTok adds more in-app shopping. Broadening the use case is key, and while TikTok is working to incorporate such into its process, Instagram’s also seeking ways to build the same into the Reels experience.