I recently downloaded TikTok and within minutes I realised that as a 32-year-old, I clearly was not the app’s intended audience. It felt chaotic, and not entirely dissimilar to the horror one experiences when entering a TK Maxx and tries to locate a particular clothing item in their size. 😬
There’s no order or structure to it, you open the app and are immediately inundated with video content that automatically starts playing… with the sound on no less.
Argh! Quick, swipe to make it stop… oh shit, I’ve just scrolled onto another video. Make it stop, make it stop! But you can’t. All you can do is either close the app or tap onto one of the sections. It’s an anxiety-inducing experience. The homepage won’t allow you to choose whether you play a video, they simply start playing. It almost seems like opening the app is akin to signing some sort of contract in which you agree to be bombarded with amateur ‘creative directors’ all grappling for your attention, and more importantly, your ‘engagement.’ Those sweet, sweet views, and ‘likes’ and even comments from those feeling particularly generous. I use the term generous because ‘engagement’ acts as a form of digital currency by which social media users measure their success. Accumulate enough of it and you may find yourself earning an income as an influencer, tastemaker, key opinion leader or whatever new buzzword brands and marketing agencies have come up with for popular social media content creators.
TikTok originally positioned itself as the new ‘Vine’, a platform for short-form video content in which you have 15 seconds to film and edit your masterpiece. With the aim being to make it as wacky, quirky and meme worthy as possible. Originally its audience was predominantly made up of teens and pre-teens. It was the social media app for Gen Z. A generation that had grown up with social media and so had very little patience for it, and in fact for any form of content. If you weren’t capturing their attention with a 5 second gif, you weren’t capturing it.
As dance challenges and reaction videos swept the platform, they also began to seep onto other social platforms, most notably Twitter. And if retweeted enough times, possibly even gained media attention, causing the creators of these TikTok videos to achieve a level of notoriety and possibly even advertising deals. And as TikTok’s popularity grew so too did its audience with older social media users jumping on bandwagon and creating their own videos or even featuring in their children’s videos. It seemed everyone, Instagram included, wanted a piece of this craze-filled content platform that was capturing everyone’s attention, particularly during these ‘unprecedented times’. And brands were no different. As a social media manager and digital strategist I’ve been asked several times over the past few months to create TikTok accounts for brands that have no place being on the platform, with the marketing teams even admitting they have little understanding of what the platform is or how they would use it.
Last week, almost exactly two years after TikTok’s US release, Instagram launched Reels — a new rival feature available on Instagram stories. Reels appear on both the Explore section of Instagram as well as on a user’s feed. Instagram recognised that they did not need to launch an entirely new application but rather opted to add a TikTok-like feature to the existing app. An app which is already well known and widely used (more than 500 million daily active users) and has already familiarised its users with short-form video content through its story feature. Rather than direct its users onto another platform Instagram have found a method to increase people’s time spent on the app, meaning more attention, more views, and more eyeballs to sell to, which will undoubtedly attract even more advertising revenue for the social media giant. A well-timed addition to the app following on from Donald Trump’s threat last week to ban TikTok in the United States. I use the term giant because I believe Facebook, through its ownership of Instagram and WhatsApp, is seeking to dominate and possibly monopolise even more of the social media space with Reels by weeding out smaller competitors such as TikTok, Snapchat, and at one point Instagram itself.
Though somewhat unfamiliar with TikTok’s editing features, Reels seems to provide its users with similar options such as various filters, audio choices, gifs, etc. More importantly however, Instagram understands that its users want choice and that Reels may only appeal to a selection or certain demographic of its users and so have made them an optional feature rather than its entire offering. They have given their users the power in choosing how and when to use Reels if they so choose to do so. From a UX point of view, this feels far calmer to me than TikTok. As a user, I get to choose whether I ‘explore’ Reels and whether I create them as part of my Instagram story content.
Similar as to the case with Snapchat after Instagram ‘borrowed’ its Story feature, I don’t believe TikTok will become obsolete however. Rather I think its user base will return to its original younger audience while older social media users (both those with and without TikTok accounts) will flock to Instagram to capitalise on the app’s existing popularity in an attempt to gain more attention for their content. Meanwhile TikTok will continue to lend itself to Gen Z’ers natural ambivalent approach to life. I get the impression they’re not really creating content ‘for the likes’ but rather because creating content simply forms part of their existence as a consequence of growing up with social media. Needless to say, I believe that while TikTok may be the perfect app for today’s generation, Reels will ultimately have wider appeal.