Facebook’s parent company, Meta, needs to stay relevant. While it has over 3.5 billion monthly users across Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, its user base is aging, it faces severe competition from TikTok, a short-form video platform, and its ad-targeting business model is facing a painful disruption. What it concentrates on next will define its future and affect the countless individuals who rely on its products.
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear what the company’s long-term strategy is: it is all in on the metaverse, a virtual environment where people can connect with each other via augmented and virtual reality technology. However, for the time being, the metaverse is largely an idea that will take five to ten years to create – as a point of reference, Meta was formed only 18 years ago. Meanwhile, Meta is investing all of its resources into Reels, a short-form video app that looks a lot like TikTok but has received far less attention than its huge metaverse bet. That is not to say Reels should not be considered.
“It is definitely the right thing to lean into this and to push hard to grow Reels as quickly as possible and not hold on the brakes at all’’, as Zuckerberg said on a recent earnings call, mentioning Reels at least 20 times and listing it as his top critical investment area for 2022. So far, Meta’s push for Reels appears to be succeeding, at least in terms of attracting the attention of Facebook users: according to a research Reels have grown in popularity to the point where they now account for more than half of the top 20 most viewed posts on Facebook in the US last quarter – the data does not include Instagram views. Reels joined Facebook for the first time last quarter, so it is no surprise that they are on these lists for the first time, but it is significant that they are taking up so many of the top posts.
This conclusion underscores a larger flaw in certain Reels videos: they are not distinctive. While Facebook encourages producers to create more original content, this does not automatically equate to better films. Nonetheless, Reels’ early success demonstrates that it is difficult to resist when a corporation of Meta’s size wants the almost 4 billion people who use its products to embrace something – despite of its quality. Reels’ early success also suggests that it has the potential to do what other Meta products have done in the past, including copycat features like Instagram Stories, which were clearly inspired by Snapchat: reshape how billions of people communicate and share information, and help Meta remain the world’s largest social media company.
In the past, Facebook has shifted its emphasis towards — and then away from — favouring video posts over text and photographs in users’ news feeds. However, since Reels launched on Instagram in August 2020 and Facebook in September 2021, the firm has shifted its focus back to video, which has already had a huge impact on the most popular content on the app. Reels is the “fastest-growing content format” on Facebook and Instagram, according to Meta, which means it is growing faster than older features like Stories, Watch, and feed items. According to the firm, Reels is now the leading contributor to Instagram engagement growth, meaning it is where people’s likes, comments, and shares are increasing the most. This is partly due to Instagram’s recommendation of Reels in people’s feeds, which raises the question of whether people are watching Reels because they enjoy them or because Facebook is giving them to them.
However, the feature is not simply gaining popularity: Reels has begun to overtake other formats: in the fourth quarter of 2021, Reels accounted for 11 of the top 20 most viewed posts on Facebook. The research also revealed what types of Reels are getting the most views: roughly 73 percent of the top 20 chart’s most-viewed Reels were posted by anonymous accounts, while nearly 82 percent were from accounts that largely collected other people’s content. According to the research, two of the top Reels on the list were really repurposed TikTok films. Although the sample size is modest, it nevertheless provides an insight of the types of Reels that work well on the platform.
The high percentage of unoriginal and anonymous content, according to Jeff Allen, a former Facebook data scientist, is concerning because it suggests Reels is incentivising aggregator, spammy accounts rather than rewarding original creators who spend time and effort to create high-quality videos. In the long run, this could stymie Meta’s efforts to convince everyone to watch more Reels. In reaction to the findings, Meta’s management stated that because Reels is still in its early stages, the business expects to see more unoriginal content.
Meta has begun to encourage creators to post Reels created just for Instagram and Facebook: it announced in February 2021 that re-shared TikTok videos featuring the TikTok logo would be deprioritized. It announced that by the end of 2022, it will have spent $1 billion in bonuses and other payments to creators, and that it has recently begun a pilot to share 55 percent of ad revenue on Reels with a small set of creators. Meta’s nudges are already having an effect, persuading some of the artists and influencers who make a career off of its platforms to change the type of content they post.
Getting young people on board is an important component of Meta’s strategy for maintaining its dominance. Meta might be able to develop a new network of Reels-only creators if it can persuade its enormous network of influencers to post Reels instead of the photographs they are more comfortable with. However, creating good content is more difficult than merely paying creators. Some creators are generating Reels when they had rather be publishing images or tales resulting in content that some find less engaging than what you can find on TikTok.
Other than paying authors, Instagram may be able to lure them by providing regularity. Reels, according to several creators who upload to both sites, receives more constant likes, shares, and comments than TikTok. In the rest of the world, it is less obvious whether Facebook’s attempt to supplant TikTok as the most popular short-form social video destination will succeed. In 2020, TikTok created a $200 million creator fund, which it hopes to grow to $1 billion in the next three years. It will come down to whether Facebook and Instagram can promote the kind of engaging material TikTok has, as well as whether it can win over a vital demographic – young adults.
The two main drivers of Meta’s Reels campaign are linked: the company’s appeal to younger people in the United States is dwindling, just as newer generations embrace TikTok, the world’s most downloaded app in 2021. According to internal papers published by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen last year, Facebook’s younger user bases in the United States have fallen dramatically, with teen users decreasing by 13% from 2019 to 2021. Simultaneously, the released data revealed how Facebook has publicly downplayed its own research that identified a link between its products and mental health concerns in some teenagers, including that Instagram exacerbated body image issues in one out of every three teenage girls.
As a result, US officials pressed Meta to scale back its efforts to attract younger users, who are vital to the company’s long-term survival. However, the scrutiny does not change the fact that younger users are still the most lucrative demographic for any social media company. TikTok, on the other hand, has become extremely popular among teenagers. According to online measuring company SimilarWeb, 3% of TikTok users were 18-25 in the past year, whereas just 27% and 23% of Instagram and Facebook users were in that age bracket, respectively. However, while TikTok appears to have a leg up on Meta in terms of its younger demographic and cultural impact, this may not be enough. Meta has a colossal amount of power.
Remember how rapidly Meta’s Instagram imitated and then overtook Snapchat, which was a huge danger to Facebook back in 2016; if history is any indication, Snap is still around, profitable, and popular among younger users — but it is not experiencing the same levels of rapid growth and cultural influence that TikTok is experiencing right now. It is too early to tell if the Meta vs. TikTok battle over short-form video will end in the same way the Meta vs. Snap battle did. But one thing is certain: Reels is not just a one-off copycat feature; it is an integral component of Facebook’s ongoing strategy to stay relevant and outperform its competitors.