These last few weeks have been hard for Tik Tok. The Chinese app was banned from India—one of its biggest markets—in late June. In the United States, the administration is debating whether to restrict it for fears that it could be used as a surveillance tool. Meanwhile, Facebook is taking advantage of Tik Tok’s weakness to roll out its latest Instagram feature. Reels, as the function is called, will let users record 15-second videos with music or audio in the background. The launch, scheduled for August, as it did with Snapchat before, shows that Facebook is unwilling to allow competition to flourish in its own turf. For Zuckerberg’s company, Tik Tok has been running wild for too long; now it’s time to crush it.
Since its launch in the US, Tik Tok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, was starting to prove that Facebook’s influence was waning. In the US, the app was downloaded by 46 million people in 2019—60% aged between 16 and 24. According to eMarketer, 22% of US millennials and Gen Z (13-38) and 42% of US teenagers between the ages of 13 and 16 use Tik Tok. This demographic, still active on Instagram, has left the Facebook app aside in favor of more personal, fun, and video-sharing platforms.
As a response, Facebook immediately launched a similar app called Lasso to compete with Tik Tok. However, the app has had mild success so far, as we wrote a few months ago (read Tik Tok, Facebook’s worst enemy). The problem is that Lasso was a new app without the incumbent’s advantage, which, at that moment, Tik Tok was enjoying.
However, Facebook does not tolerate competition. It either buys it out or copies it, as it has done before. In 2012, the Menlo Park-based company acquired its new competitor Instagram for $1 billion, as the app was starting to reel in young users. In 2014, Zuckerberg again went on a buying spree for messaging app WhatsApp—dominant in Latin America, India, and Spain. Still, Facebook’s most famous acquisition attempt happened in 2013, when the tech giant tried to buy Snapchat. After failing at the purchase, Facebook, using a textbook envelopment strategy and leveraging the fact that most Snapchat users also had an Instagram account, rolled out new Instagram features that copied its competitor in 2016: the Stories’ feature lets users post pictures that disappear after 24 hours, just like Snapchat. One year later, Instagram Stories had 250 million active users, while Snapchat only had 166 million.
Now it’s Tik Tok’s turn. For almost two years, the 15-to-60 second video app has been a competitor of Facebook, but its popularity has flourished since the pandemic began. Quarantined for months, young users have turned to Tik Tok to connect with their peers by dancing, singing, and making short videos go viral. Even healthcare influencers have used the app to spread content (read The rise of the healthcare influencer).
With its feel-good vibe, Tik Tok was changing what we expect from social media. Instead of the ‘everything perfect’ storyline that users on Instagram tend to portray, Tik Tok is more immediate, spontaneous, and fun. It also does not depend on your network as you can watch anyone’s videos (read Tik Tok, the video app that’s defining our zeitgeist).
However, its luck seems to be ending. Last year, Tik Tok was under scrutiny in the United Kingdom for illegally collecting information of underage children. This year, its troubles have doubled. On July 6, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the country was looking into banning Tik Tok to prevent surveillance and propaganda from China. The announcement came right after India had already banned the app and 58 other platforms over privacy concerns.
Despite Tik Tok’s popularity, its future is uncertain. And that’s the opportunity Facebook has been waiting for. Instagram’s feature Reels will imitate all of Tik Tok’s singularity from within an already popular app. Instagram has over 120 million users in the US alone, which puts it at an advantage over Tik Tok. The strategy will be similar to the one Facebook had with Snapchat. If you have an app that offers a service—and your network is in it,—you are more likely to stay there instead of downloading a second app that provides the same service. When Reels rolls out, many users will transfer to Instagram (as they did from Snapchat). There will be differences between the two apps, especially in terms of design, and that at first might disincentive users. Reels will offer the same editing tools to change the video’s speed, add songs, or set countdown timers. Still, its feed will be different as Reels will appear on Instagram’s explore tab as another video on the feed surrounded by different Instagram tabs. In contrast, Tik Tok offers a scrollable feed that only shows videos (no other tabs). However, those differences will be minor in the long run as users will get used to them.
Facebook will likely crush Tik Tok with its feature when they couldn’t do it with a new stand alone app. The strategy is different. Launching Lasso meant creating a new network, new hype, and a unique feel. It meant acclimating users to a new experience but doing so as the underdog. In the reign of short-video social media apps, Tik Tok was the king. However, Facebook avoids that whole battle by taking the fight to another level—social media in general. And in the world of social media, Facebook reigns, and Instagram is the incumbent.
In the world of tech, competition is rarely accepted. New enterprises can aspire to be bought out by a tech giant (as happened with Instagram or YouTube), but it is a whole other world to overthrow one. With their giant research teams and their infinite resources, Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon can afford to buy or copy their opponents, but they cannot afford to let them flourish. In general, either option is easy for the big four as they own the networks—Facebook controls the social network, Amazon, the distribution one, and Google owns the infrastructure. (Apple is another story as it appeals to values such as luxury and uniqueness). Their power gives them monopolies in their fields, which increases their political clout and further establishes their grip over the market.
The launch of Reels shows that Facebook is not willing to tolerate competition and that monopolies on their own keep growing. Maybe it’s time to rethink whether Big Tech should be broken up and whether it’s time for the US to apply anti-trust legislation (read 2019, the year when Big Tech may shrink).
For now, Tik Tok has to face two challenges—further bans and Facebook’s Reels. And Facebook tends to win.