Sep 24, 2020
Shining light on TikTok's murky situation: what do Reels and Triller mean for the app's future?
With heaps of uncertainty surrounding the future of TikTok, many in the influencer marketing space are asking questions. What will happen if TikTok is banned from the United States? Will advertisers avoid the app in favor of those perceived as less threatening to the country's security? What about the influencers? Some high profile names have been leaving for other apps like Triller, while others grasp firmly to their existing audience. Speculations abound, but we might catch a glimpse at TikTok's future with an eye towards the past.
Eight years ago, smartphone users were raving about a new social network where users could watch and upload short "looped" videos. Vine was all the rave, especially among teenagers and young adults, and its six-second format produced a goldmine of meme-able one-liners and creative skits. When parent company Twitter announced in 2016 that the medium would be effectively shut down, millions in the U.S. and around the world were left without a similar service.
Vine was originally created as a tool to capture everyday moments in peoples' lives to share with friends—think Snapchat without the selfies. But it became something of a short video storytelling platform, as co-founder Dan Hofmann remarked that it quickly "became clear that Vine's culture was going to shift towards creativity and experimentation." For a generation familiar with Twitter's mini-blog format and Instagram's image focus, Vine was a way to show off the quirkier parts of our personalities, incorporating quick video cuts and high-energy audio.
TikTok's videos may be longer, but its functions are largely similar to those of Vine. Young people in the U.S. now have another social platform to watch looped videos and share with friends. But Vine's success was short-lived. Only four years after Twitter purchased the app, it announced Vine's effective shutdown. The app known for its snappily quick videos saw its social media reign ended just as fast.
The downfall of Vine is difficult to compare to the potential decline of TikTok because of the developing geopolitical circumstances. But there is a similarity between the two apps. One reason for Vine's failure was Instagram's pension for co-opting features of rivals, a method it has deployed to combat TikTok's popularity, as well as other apps like Snapchat.
Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom suggested last year that copying the Stories feature from Snapchat was giving users "what they wanted," a change which led some Snapchat users to turn away from using the app quite so frequently. Vine also fell victim to Instagram's replication model. One former executive lamented the introduction of the Instagram Video feature in 2013 as "the beginning of the end" for Vine. Once the more popular Instagram adds a prominent feature from another platform, its massive popularity gives it a distinct advantage over smaller apps.
Though TikTok has a massive user base, it still pales in comparison to that of Instagram in the United States. When Instagram introduced Reels last month, a short video feature clearly imitating TikTok's interface, millions more around the country became exposed to content previously reserved for users of the Chinese app. It's easy to mistake a Reel for a TikTok, in fact many are pulled directly from TikTok. "It's impossible not to notice the flood of reuploaded videos from TikTok," writes Julia Alexander in The Verge, "with TikTok watermarks still dotting the upper left-hand corner of reel after reel." This could hint at creators' potential shifting towards Instagram as a more stable source of advertising revenue, especially with Instagram's offer to pay TikTokers to make the switch.
Instagram isn't the only app out there trying to woo TikTok talent. In June, TikTok star Josh Richards announced he was leaving the platform for competitor Triller, echoing the US government's data security concerns. Other major stars have followed the Hype House member, including a swathe of Indian creators after TikTok was banned in the country. You can bet that, with big names drawing in marketing funds, smaller creators would be more willing to join a less popular app like Triller.
Instagram and Triller pose a serious threat to TikTok's business, but they aren't the only ones. Even YouTube, traditionally home to long-form video content, announced the release of YouTube Shorts, a TikTok competitor. TikTok is certainly feeling the pressure, but you would be wrong to think this guarantees the ByteDance-owned app's demise. Not only has ByteDance established a $200 million creator fund to keep and attract top talent, but history shows that apps can still thrive after their features are reproduced by competitors. Consider that Snapchat's user base has continued to gradually rise after Instagram added Stories in 2016, culminating in a record 238 million daily users earlier this year. There also exists an immeasurable thirst for looped videos in American society, especially among younger users, as displayed by TikTok's rapid growth in the years following Vine's discontinuation. Finally, the cost of switching may be seen as too great for many TikTok users and creators.
While it is impossible to know exactly what the fate of TikTok will be, we know from the example of Vine that a feature copied by Instagram can lead to a decline in user activity. That, along with the fact that other rival apps such as Triller are increasing in popularity, means that TikTok may experience a decline in activity, which has ramifications for marketing costs and availability. It would serve current TikTok influencer marketers well to look at how their creators are performing relative to previous months, as well as any potential uptick in Reels or Triller content engagement.
That being said, there is a very good reason to believe that TikTok is here to stay. Last weekend, an agreement to "Americanize TikTok" spared the app from its U.S. ban, with Oracle and WalMart taking major stakes in the new branch of the company, TikTok Global. This organization will focus on data security, a concern President Trump has used to excuse an unprecedented big tech battle against TikTok and its owners. Now that the battle seems to have subsided, with concerns cited by some of the app's abandoners all but cleared up, there is a chance that TikTok won't be as harshly docked as many imagined.
The Vine app did not stand the test of time, but its message continues to resonate throughout the United States. At its peak, it was "an entirely new art form" accessible for millions because of its simple-to-use format. While TikTok has veered in slightly different directions, its general feel is the same, and Americans have clung onto it unlike any other app in recent memory. Whether or not it continues to grow as an avenue of influencer and digital marketing depends on how users adapt to new ways of "TikTok-ing," like Reels, and whether the political situation keeps TikTok on the market at all.