Instagram Reels is a dud
Millions of people have used the social media app TikTok to make and share short, fun videos. I am not one of them. As an older millennial, I have exclusively used Facebook’s Instagram to post photos of my dog. I have never made a 15-second dance video. But that changed last week when Facebook released a TikTok copycat called Reels, which is part of Instagram. Its introduction suddenly made making short videos a lot more interesting.
I invited Taylor Lorenz, our Internet culture writer and resident TikTok expert, to share her thoughts about how Facebook’s clone worked versus the real thing. With her experience and my novice knowledge, we could assess how both the never-TikTokers and the TikTok die-hards might feel about Reels.
The verdict? For her: Not good. For me: Confused.
Both TikTok and Reels are free to use. With Reels, Instagram mimicked TikTok’s signature ability to create short video montages, which are overlaid with copyrighted music and embellished with effects like emojis and sped-up motion. The similarities pretty much end there — and not in a positive way.
On Instagram, the videos are published to a feed known as the Explore tab, a mishmash of photos, sponsored posts and long-form videos. On TikTok, videos are surfaced through For You, a feed algorithmically tailored to show clips that suit your interests. Reels also lacks TikTok’s editing features, like song recommendations and automatic clip trimming, that use artificial intelligence to speed up video creation.
Not only does Reels fail in every way as a TikTok clone, but it is also confusing, frustrating and impossible to navigate. To open Reels, you tap the Explore button and open someone else’s reel before hitting the camera button to start creating your own reel.
You can also create a reel by swiping right in Instagram to enter the camera and then selecting Reels, a button next to Story. (Which is undiscoverable without reading instructions.) You can record videos or add videos you’ve already recorded. Then you can overlay music and some effects like emojis and colour filters. Then you write a caption and publish.
On TikTok, you can just grab a ton of videos, dump them all into the app and hit a button. TikTok will automatically select highlights from your videos and edit them to match the beat of whatever sound you choose. This makes it easy to create a really engaging, smooth video in under 10 seconds from a ton of footage. It also suggests the best songs for each video.
In Reels, you have to manually select where a music track starts to ensure it’s in sync with a clip. For music on Reels, I would hit the Audio button and just type in a word that came to mind to search for relevant songs. With the video of my corgi eating bread, I typed the word “hungry” to choose Hungry Eyes. Then I had to trim the clips and manually synchronise a portion of the song. That took me 10 minutes. And then Reels saves without sound. Instagram said there were restrictions and that they were working with third-party rights holders to expand its features. So when you save a video to your device after posting it, the music is automatically stripped away.
TikTok makes it very easy to create really entertaining short videos and makes it easy for that content to go viral. Reels makes it hard to create entertaining short videos — and even if you post them, the best you can hope for is to get a little distribution on a crowded Explore page.
Also, Reels is missing the ability to “duet” content, as you can on TikTok. Duets allow users to create side-by-side reaction videos. This is a core way users communicate and riff off each other. It’s basically the TikTok version of a quote tweet.
Finally, Reels has no “friends only” option. On TikTok, I’m able to post a video only mutual friends can see. Currently the simplest way to do that on Reels is to set your profile to friends-only so that all your posts are viewable only to friends. Otherwise, if you share a reel privately with a friend through a direct message, it acts like a Story and disappears after 24 hours.
BRIAN: As an Instagram user, I see no benefit to using Reels as opposed to Stories for posting videos.
TAYLOR: With TikTok, I can post a fun video of my day in under 15 seconds. Reels took me about five minutes. I can’t see myself creating a Reel again.