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tiktok icon with cool shades watching a video while youtube and instagram icons look on in ENVY
TikTok’s features have been quickly copied by American social media companies keen not to miss out Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONInternetJuly 19, 2022

Why are Instagram and YouTube so bad at copying TikTok?

tiktok icon with cool shades watching a video while youtube and instagram icons look on in ENVY
TikTok’s features have been quickly copied by American social media companies keen not to miss out Image: Tina Tiller

Are Reels and Shorts the future of social media? Or are they just distracting from what these apps are actually good at? For IRL, Shanti Mathias gets lost in the short-form video churn.

First, a confession: I am someone who spends a lot of time on the internet, probably more than I should, and I do not have a TikTok account.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t watch a lot of TikToks, however, because the short video form has infested all my other social media apps. Reposted videos are everywhere on Twitter, but it’s Instagram and YouTube that have really committed to it: Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts are essentially wholesale rip-offs of TikTok. 

Copying a competitor’s strategy when its popularity threatens your product is the oldest business trick in the book. It’s not even the first time we’ve seen this happen: Instagram duplicated the story function from Snapchat, and before long, the other social media giants tried to do the same. (They didn’t always succeed.) 

The issue with Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts isn’t that they’re copying TikTok – it’s that they’re extraordinarily bad at doing so. In the early hype around TikTok, as the app and format began its rise to ubiquity, journalists compelled to try the app would write articles listing what they had seen within it. To emphasise how useless Google and Meta have been at algorithmically-recommended short-form video, I attempted to do the same. 

YouTube and Instagram are much worse at delivering short videos to watchers than TikTok (Photo: Getty Images)

In the YouTube Shorts tab, I’ve seen a husband lie to his wife about seeing Harry Styles, just to get her reaction; a dude with a microphone trying to high five people and give them chocolate; a team of pressure washers rescuing a baby bird; some trampolinists performing tricks off a wall; a self-proclaimed “vocal coach” reacting to a video of Will Ferrell. Most of these videos are reposts from TikTok. Because the algorithm, which is created by Google, one of the biggest and wealthiest companies in the world, apparently has no ability to remember what I’ve watched before, I’ve seen each of these videos at least five times over multiple days. 

Instagram Reels is marginally better. It’s still populated mainly by TikTok reposts, but also has a lot of people setting their lives to music. Since reels are mixed in with photo-only posts in a feed, as well as existing in their own tab – Instagram’s way to make the feature ubiquitous – they’re difficult to escape. The soothing, stupefying experience of scrolling through pictures of people you know and/or love has been replaced by the noisy, stupefying experience of seeing those same people romanticise their lives in short videos.

For creators, who need people to see and follow them to make money, the prioritising of video on Instagram means they’re compelled to make videos – even if their followers aren’t interested. It’s a reminder of the bad days of Facebook’s pivot to video in 2015, when organisations using the platform – including this one – had to make videos to be seen in newsfeeds, even though the metrics Facebook based this on were a lie.

I avoided TikTok because, frankly, I was worried about the algorithm, worried that I could stare at a small screen for hours being diagnosed in hyperspecific ways by another corporation that knew too much about me. “I don’t need a ‘For You’ page,” I thought. “I’m already extremely maybe terminally – online.” 

the instagram logo pixelated and blurred, like something is wrong
Prioritising Instagram Reels has made the app less effective at showing people pictures of people they follow (Image: Tina Tiller)

The past few weeks of using YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels for about 20 minutes each day, masochistically flipping through content that is confusing, deranged, or (sometimes, admittedly) quite fun, has shown me that the world’s biggest tech companies may have access to unparalleled quantities of data about millions of people, but they can still be wrong. 

Google and Meta are presumably throwing millions of dollars and hundreds of well-paid developers, engineers and data scientists at their short video products, but at best, they’re currently worse versions of TikTok with a less-targeted algorithm. In this humble internet journalist’s opinion, it’s inexplicable that YouTube is able to ignore the decade of data it has on what I watch (a lot of videos of the Mamma Mia cast, impressive cosplay content and video essays about books) and completely neglect to serve me anything I’m interested in on its shorts channels. While I use Instagram much less – mainly for work and keeping tabs on my younger siblings – the Reels algorithm is also bad at showing me videos I might like. Given that engagement, especially on Instagram, is down, the pursuit of short video seems like a bad business call. Did we not learn anything from Quibi?

It is possible, to a lesser or greater extent, to avoid Reels and Shorts while using Instagram and YouTube. If I were their parent company, I’d be concerned that the focus on capitalising on the TikTok vogue means that these platforms are doing less of what they’re good at: being an extraordinarily informative place to find videos of nearly anything, and hosting nice pictures of people you know socially or parasocially. Maybe in a year or two, Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts will be as good as TikTok already is – just like Instagram Stories largely overwhelmed Snapchat. For now though, I’m done worrying about algorithms: it’s time to go straight to the source, and actually join TikTok

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