Millions of people have used the social media app TikTok to make and share short, fun, entertaining videos. I, Brian Chen, am not one of them.
Count me as one of those never-TikTokers. 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 all changed last week. That was when Facebook released a TikTok copycat called Reels, which is part of Instagram. Its introduction suddenly made making short videos a lot more interesting.
Facebook’s timing was brilliant. That’s because TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese internet company ByteDance, has been under major pressure from President Trump. He has identified TikTok as a national security threat and threatened to ban the app from the United States, prompting numerous panicked TikTokers to look for alternatives.
So here was an opportunity to test Reels and compare it with TikTok. 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, it was: Not good. For me, it was: Confused.
Let’s start with what was copied. Both TikTok, a stand-alone app, and Reels, a feature inside Instagram, 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 ended there — and not in a positive way for Instagram.
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 the process of video creation.
Taylor and I each tested Reels for five days and then talked about what we had found. We didn’t hold back.
TAYLOR I can definitively say Reels is the worst feature I’ve ever used.
BRIAN Please elaborate. As a never-TikToker, I feel that it’s probably the worst Instagram feature I’ve used, too, but your feelings seem stronger than mine.
TAYLOR It’s horrible. Not only does Reels fail in every way as a TikTok clone, but it’s confusing, frustrating and impossible to navigate. It’s like Instagram took all the current functionality on Stories (a tool to publish montages of photos and videos with added filters, text and music clips), and jammed them into a separate, new complicated interface for no reason.
To me, it’s really unclear whom this feature is for.
BRIAN Let’s walk through how to use Reels.
To open the feature, you tap the Explore button (the magnifying glass) and open someone else’s reel before hitting the camera button to start creating your own reel.
So I have to watch someone else’s video before creating my own? This is a waste of time, battery life and cell data.
TAYLOR 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 confusing.
BRIAN It’s totally undiscoverable without reading instructions. But OK, you find the button to create a reel. Then you can start recording videos or add videos you’ve already recorded. Then you can overlay music and some effects like emojis and color filters. Then you write a caption and publish.
How does this compare with TikTok?
TAYLOR TikTok is better in a million ways. The main one being that TikTok removes all of the friction that normally comes with trying to make a good video.
On TikTok, you can just grab a ton of videos (like, hit select on 17 different videos of all different lengths), and dump them all into the app and hit a button. TikTok will automatically select highlights from your videos and edit them in a way to match the beat of whatever sound you choose. This makes it so easy to create a really engaging, smooth video in under 10 seconds from a ton of footage.
Here’s an example of Reels versus TikTok of the same thing. You can see which is better!
Here’s the reel:
And here’s the TikTok video:
Oh, wait, did Reels save without sound?
BRIAN Yeah. Instagram said that 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.
What you describe about TikTok just makes Reels sound so lacking. In Reels, you have to manually select where a music track starts to ensure it’s in sync with a clip. You’re saying TikTok automatically figures that out for you?
TAYLOR In TikTok, you have a feature called “sound sync,” which everyone uses. You upload a bunch of clips, and it will reorder and trim them to match whatever sound you choose. It also suggests the best songs for each video.
BRIAN Wow, really? That’s insane.
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 this video of my corgi eating bread, I typed the word “hungry” to choose “Hungry Eyes.” Then I had to trim the clips and manually synchronize a portion of the song. That took me about 10 minutes.
Now take a look at an example of a failed reel that I never posted. I was trying to make a montage of dog butts being scratched. After adding the music, I was able to go back and trim the second clip to be in rhythm with the music, but couldn’t go backward to trim the first clip of scratching the Doberman’s butt.
Why am I able to edit the second clip but not the first clip? Instagram said it was still early days and that they were working on the ability to edit earlier clips. (Early days, my butt! They’ve been working on Reels for over a year.)
TAYLOR 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 very crowded Explore page.
A big part of why TikToks go viral is that they can be easily downloaded and shared across platforms (with credit baked in because they’re watermarked with the handle).
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. I just want an easy way to post to my friends only.
BRIAN Right. 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. Which is confusing.
How long would you say you spent on making a TikTok versus a reel?
TAYLOR With TikTok, I can post a fun video of my day in under 15 seconds. Reels took me about five minutes.
Some people do spend an enormous amount of time editing their TikToks and making these really complicated and amazing videos. But for me, just a casual user who uses TikTok to capture fun highlights from my day-to-day life, that’s the time frame.
BRIAN As an Instagram user, I see no benefit to using Reels as opposed to Stories for posting videos. It’s extremely confusing for even us to use, which means it’s going to be much more confusing for casual tech users.
I’ll add that my followers didn’t seem impressed with Reels. The reel of my corgi, Max, eating bread got about 250 likes, down from the 300 to 400 likes that he usually gets from regular Instagram photos.
Maybe I’ll post more Reels one day if Instagram catches up with TikTok. But until then, I think you’ve persuaded me to start a TikTok.
TAYLOR I can’t see myself creating a Reel again. I might use it as a repository to re-upload my TikToks. But over all it just doesn’t have any of the video-editing ability that I’ve come to expect.
It’s also hard to find and discover other Reels. Part of why it’s so easy to be creative on TikTok is that you’re presented daily with a series of trends, memes or challenges. It makes it easy to see what other people are doing and hop on it or riff off it. I just don’t see what Reels is good for.
BRIAN That’s some reel talk.