Monday, May 16, 2022

Instagram Reels, the TikTok copycat, promotes more video

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Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

Around 2015, Facebook decided it would become a video platform. To do this, it has deposited a whole bunch of money into news organizations (including this one) so that we could actually make those videos† The problem was that many of us charged with this task didn’t really know what we were doing, and it resulted in a lot of videos that ended up being really worthless.

The reason I can say this is because I was one of them. Of course I made one many videos i was proud of We once hired experienced producers, editors, and directors to walk me through the incredibly complicated process of making a good video, but a significant part of it was ill-thought-out and poorly executed Facebook lives with about 20 people watching, if we Facebook’s numbers were to be believed, which the entire industry later found out, they weren’t

Seven years later and Facebook is still desperate to let us watch videos on its platforms, this time in the form of reels. Reels is a rather shameless TikTok copycat that lives in a separate tab from Instagram’s main feed. But just as IGTV failed to become a competitor to YouTube, Reels has failed to replicate the magic of TikTok’s addictive and powerful algorithm. Instead, Facebook has fueled the success of Reels by shove the videos in your face every time you open the Instagram app. During Facebook’s most recent earnings call in February, the company maintained that Reels saw “huge growth,” but it’s unclear whether people are watching because they’re looking for it or because Instagram won’t allow them to avoid it.

For creators who have built a lot of followers on Instagram by sharing beautiful or interesting images and well-crafted captions, the platform offers frequent attempts to control video a long time complaint. Not only are videos significantly more work (and more expensive) to make, many users don’t want to watch them. “If I’ve asked my audience if they’d rather see photos or videos of me, they’ll say photos,” she says. Rosey Beeme, a fashion blogger with 180,000 followers on Instagram. “But I don’t see those people’s interactions because my work is no longer being pushed to them. The videos that perform best for me are the most boring to make.”

“I hate making videos,” says Annie Rauwerda, the student behind the popular account Depths of Wikipedia† “I post screenshots from Wikipedia, which are static, so it takes 20 times longer to make a video.” In December, she received an automatic pop-up from Instagram inviting her to the Creators Fund and offering her several thousand dollars a month if she continuously reached a quota of 9 million video views. “It’s hard to pass up,” she says of the money she uses to pay for school. But it means a lot more of her time is spent creating content that neither she nor her followers are specifically looking for.

Small business owners, in particular, lament the priority Instagram gives to video because of the cost it adds to maintaining engagement and follower growth. “It was terrifying because I was really good at taking great photos and writing long emotional captions, and suddenly, for the past six months, I’m mourning the loss of that skill,” Sana Javeri Kadri of the spice brand Diaspora Company recently told the New York Times† She has seen her posts go from between 2,000 and 3,000 likes to about 200 or 300.

It was the fall of 2020 that Beeme, the fashion blogger, noticed that her still images received significantly fewer likes and comments. “I get that they’re competing with TikTok, but I think there’s still room for a good photo app, a little quiet space on the web,” she says. “Many of us came to Instagram primarily because we love photography, and it’s so interesting to have to recalibrate our own interests to accommodate an algorithm.”

No one likes to complain about the Instagram algorithm more than the people who use it the most. Concerns over “shadow ban” and Facebook’s confusing and inconsistent practice delete accounts it finds suspicious are constant concerns for people who have built their livelihood on the platform. After years of begging Instagram to return to its original chronological timeline, last week it finally collapsed, which allows all users to switch from the default algorithmically generated feed to a tab labeled “Following” that shows a reverse chronological timeline of all the accounts they follow. There is also another option called ‘Favorites’ that lists up to 50 accounts of their choice.

Katie Notopoulos from BuzzFeed has argued convincingly that this will be even worse than the default algorithm, and what people are actually nostalgic about is the version of Instagram where far fewer people actually used it and before it became a person’s all-in-one lifestyle. As long as Instagram encourages creators to keep making videos with literal money or at least more views, your feed will still find a way to force you to consume them.

This is not to say that video-centric social media platforms are bad – quite the contrary! YouTube and TikTok have managed to generate new art forms and have attracted hugely talented creators. Where they have failed is when they try to be everything to everyone. After the success of TikTok, YouTube launched its competitor project YouTube Shorts, while TikTok is now coming ahead of YouTube by increasing the maximum length of its videos to 10 minutes. Nobody seems to want one of these things alongside directors and shareholders who demand growth and increased market share at all costs.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about Instagram’s demand for more videos, even crappy ones, is that it forces artists and celebrities to give their users more access to themselves – their opinions, their behind-the-scenes lives, their processes – while it could ultimately be harmful to their profession. Musicians, in particular, have complained that they were pressured by their record labels to post on TikTok and Instagram to appear more “relatable.” “I remember meeting my record label where they said, ‘We just want you to post about your flaws every Tuesday and maybe you can post some pictures with dogs,'” said pop star Charli XCX on a podcast last spring† “I stormed out. I thought, ‘This is fucking ridiculous!’ It was crazy. That is not real.”

Earlier this month, Doja denounced Cat de process of making forced videos in a sponsored TikTok for Taco Bell, in which she complained that she had to write a “fucking jingle” about her New Mexican pizza. “Before I post it, I want you to know it’s contractual. I know it’s bad,” she told her 22 million followers. That the disclaimer was clearly part of the branding deal goes to show how mundane it is to recognize that making videos takes work and isn’t always fun.

Aaron Bruno, the lead singer of the band AWOLNATION, can relate to this as he promotes his latest cover album. “One of the aspects of artists that I’ve always loved the most is that they had a bit of mystery behind them, and that’s almost starting to get lost,” he tells me over the phone.

Social media isn’t going anywhere, of course. What’s happening here is the natural tension between what’s good for tech executives and what’s good for the people who spend time on their platforms — a balance that isn’t always quite straightforward. As long as tech companies and influencers are forced to grow as big as possible as quickly as possible, there will be people left behind, people who are swallowed by the algorithm and people who feel they are missing out by not choosing in. “I wonder if there will be a pushback or a pendulum swing to less content and more mystery,” Bruno adds. “If someone finds out about that, I’ll go all out.” The same!

This column was first published in the Goods Newsletter. Register here so you don’t miss the next one, plus exclusive newsletters.

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