If you needed reminding that TikTok has been the most downloaded app for essentially all of the past 18 months, and is still surging in popularity and usage amongst younger audiences, this is probably a good prompt.
As spotted by app researcher Alessandro Paluzzi, Instagram appears to once again be looking to nullify its video rival with a new test of a TikTok-style vertical content feed for Explore, which, once entered, would enable you to swipe through Instagram's content recommendations, and swipe across on multi-image posts.
#Instagram is working on a Reels-style Explore section ????— Alessandro Paluzzi (@alex193a) July 26, 2021
ℹ️ When opened, the Explore section will remain the same as now but by selecting a post the view will be like a #Reels clip.
ℹ️ Posts with multiple photos behave like stories, so you can tap left and right to view them. pic.twitter.com/fkhlP2Y7Dq
As Paluzzi notes, within the test, the Explore section remains as normal until you tap on a post. When you do, the post then expands to the new full-screen, Reels-like display. You can then either tap the back arrow in the top left of screen to go back to the regular Explore listing, or instead, you'd be able to then swipe up to move onto the next post in your Explore feed. You would also be able to swipe across on multi-image carousels, indicated by grey dashes along the bottom of the screen.
Which, as noted, is very TikTok-esque. But at the same time, it's actually kind of brilliant.
A big advantage that TikTok holds over Instagram at this stage is in content discovery, and highlighting personally relevant, entertaining public posts to each user based on their engagement behaviors, which are then fed to them via their 'For You' page, the default home feed in the app (as opposed to your 'Following' feed).
Instagram chief Adam Mosseri has even acknowledged TikTok's lead on this element, noting that, right now, TikTok is better than Instagram at providing 'reliable entertainment'.
As Mosseri said last month:
"You know that you can tap on TikTok and you're going to immediately smile and be entertained."
Instagram is not as good at this, because Instagram is still largely confined by who you already follow and the content that they create, which appears in your home feed and within Stories. That limits the amount of great, engaging content that Instagram's algorithm can show you, while the design of Instagram is also not as implicit as TikTok, which presents every clip in a full-screen display, one at at time.
That not only means that TikTok has a broader selection of content to choose from for its 'For You' feed, helping to keep you engaged, but it also means that every action that you take within the app relates to each individual clip that you're shown, as opposed to, say, Instagram or Facebook, which will often have multiple posts displayed in the feed at a time, as well as captions, ads, Stories, etc.
Tech analyst Eugene Wei provided an in-depth overview of this element, and how it powers TikTok's algorithm, in this post, which basically comes down to its presentation style, and what TikTok can then glean from every users' engagement with every clip.
As Wei notes:
"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? Seems that something about it appealed to you. Did you share the video through the built-in share pane? Another strong indicator of positive sentiment. 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."
Instagram doesn't have these same indicators with general content, though it has tried to incorporate them into Reels. But even then, the main focus of Instagram is on people and profiles that you follow, not on broader exploration and content exposure.
But if it can build a similar process into Explore, with full-screen presentation, honing in its focus, and helping its algorithms more specifically register similar engagement behaviors, maybe Instagram could also become more responsive in the same way, thereby enabling it to show users more of what they like, and less of what they don't, and making Explore better aligned with each user.
It also aligns with evolving consumption behaviors, in swiping up, and seeing each post take-up all of your attention on a single screen. And if you don't like that presentation style, you'd still, theoretically, be able to go back to Explore as you know it, minimizing disruption.
That could actually be an excellent approach to the TikTok conundrum facing the app - and while it'll still open to your main feed, showing posts from users that you follow (though I've speculated before that this will change at some stage), if it can make Explore a more engaging, more relevant feed, with a more engrossing, engaging presentation style, that could be a big step.
It seems like a positive experiment, which also seems to be fairly well-developed, based on Paluzzi's example clip. We've asked Instagram as to whether this is being tested in the live environment, and what the plans may be, and we'll update this post if/when we hear back.