Your Digital Self: TikTok is the anti-Instagram, and companies are trying to copy it

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TikTok, one of the most downloaded apps of the past decade, points the way to a world of easy content creation by just about anyone.

The wildly popular video-sharing social-networking service is owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based company founded in 2012. Users create and post three- to 60-second lip-sync, comedy and talent videos.

According to Sensor Tower, TikTok exceeded a combined 1.5 billion downloads from the Apple AAPL, -2.94%  App Store and Alphabet’s GOOG, -2.24% GOOGL, -2.35%  Google Play by February 2019, 123.8 million of which came from the U.S. The platform attracts mainly a younger demographic, as two-thirds of its users are under 30 (Some 60% of active monthly users from the U.S. are between 16 and 24 years old.)

Frivolous fun

So how exactly does TikTok work? Content creators take existing formats, such as jokes, memes and songs, and reinterpret them in their own way. A song is lip-synced by hundreds of creators, each adding their own twist to it. The content shared via TikTok can be described as mostly frivolous, but users don’t care. They have fun creating it and don’t seem bothered by public scrutiny.

TikTok is almost the opposite or a deliberate parody of what’s on Instagram; its users seemingly go out of their way to denounce the latter platform’s aesthetics, high-profile production values and originality. If anything, the majority of TikTok creators embrace the silliness to the fullest, and in that lies its biggest strength: setting the entry bar very low.

TikTok enables anyone to jump in quickly and create content, without the work that goes into polished production. Various challenges and video themes are searchable via hashtags (much like hashtags on Twitter TWTR, -1.24% ) and represent what’s currently trending on the platform. Participating in these challenges gives content creators not only ideas for new clips, but also a sense of belonging to a wider community.

Facebook takes notice

TikTok is a phenomenon that has taken the world by storm, and Facebook FB, -1.41%  is starting to catch up. The social-media giant tried to clone TikTok in November 2018, which resulted in Lasso — a standalone copycat app that failed to garner any significant following.

After that unsuccessful attempt, Facebook reverted to its old habit of copying relevant features and implanting them in already widely popular apps the company owns. This is how it conquered Snapchat (run by Snap SNAP, -2.26% ) in 2016 when Instagram cloned its signature Stories feature. Last November, Instagram users in Brazil were introduced to Reels — a video-music remix feature that lets them make 15-second long video clips using a song from a database.

Facebook wants to test Reels on markets not yet saturated with TikTok before implementing it elsewhere. Getting the interface and features right isn’t the only challenge. The main problem remains what I outlined earlier: If the Instagram audience doesn’t embrace TikTok’s brand of silliness, Reels won’t be a feature they will want to use. Furthermore, the community itself will discourage others from using it, shaming and trolling content creators who try. Finally, an influx of TikTok-like content on Instagram could alienate the existing audience that may find the new format unpalatable.

Everyone’s a content creator

But there’s a bigger picture here. TikTok is giving us a glimpse of the future of social media, one in which the least amount of effort is expended to be a content creator with a shot at viral fame or at least a few laughs if they want to.

The phenomenon isn’t unlike what happened to video content with the advent of YouTube (now owned by Alphabet): formality, etiquette and high production values often seen on television shows gave way to spontaneousness, informality and personal, sometimes emotional, connections with the audience.

Now, thanks to TikTok and similar social networks, the barriers between content creators and content consumers are crumbling further, blurring the line between the two. TikTok is a tumultuous community that is always in flux — unpredictable, frivolous and often uncouth — but also authentic.

So, which do you prefer — TikTok or Instagram? Please let me know in the comment section below.

Jurica Dujmovic is a MarketWatch columnist.

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