Can Facebook and Instagram copy TikTok?

Will Facebook, Instagram or Whatsapp try to copy TikTok’s functions in order to curb its success? After all, this tactic has proven to be pretty successful with Snapchat.

TikTok is booming: for February 2020 the number of monthly active users (MAU) is estimated at 800 million. At this rate this social network will be one of the fastest platforms to reach the milestone of one billion users.

It’s obvious from Marc Zuckerberg’s most recent speeches that Facebook considers TikTok a serious threat. Especially that Lasso, the countermove they launched in November 2018, failed to generate the same level of traction.

Now the question is: will Facebook, Instagram or Whatsapp try to copy TikTok’s functions in order to curb its success? After all, this tactic has proven to be pretty successful with Snapchat.

Several years and technological developments later, it seems like the differences with TikTok are so fundamental that any copycat attempt is almost doomed to failure. Here are five areas in which TikTok has a significant lead over Facebook and Instagram:


1. Video-first structure

Facebook is built around the textual status updates to which you can also add pictures and videos. Instagram is based on pictures and users can add video and text.

From day one video has been the cornerstone of TikTok. This is a key difference. For instance, sound is an integral part of the TikTok experience, whereas Facebook and Instagram are silent by default.

Implementing the video-first approach on Facebook and Instagram at this late stage would likely mean a disruption that would deter their current users; or a Frankenstein-esque extension added to a large structure as an ugly afterthought


2. Different algorithm

To gain any traction with your content on Facebook and Instagram, you have to first build a network of friends and followers who will get to see your posts and potentially broaden the reach.

With TikTok it’s exactly the opposite. The algorithm determines who gets to see your posts. If your video strikes a nerve it may be seen by as many as one million people without as much as one follower.

This works surprisingly well and in my opinion it’s one of the reasons why TikTok is growing exponentially. New users and viewers are met with extremely rich content that becomes very relevant very fast, making it especially addictive to the ‘lurkers’. This addictive effect also applies to the video creators: you never know in advance how many viewers a new video will get because it’s unrelated to the number of followers. Sounds like a  psychological mechanism known as intermittent reinforcement.

Facebook/Instagram may soon change their existing algorithm. LinkedIn, for instance, made a similar switch this past year.


3. Creator toolbox

At the moment TikTok has a considerable technical advantage when it comes to the tools the makers can use. The way in which the platform allows users to store videos as concepts and edit them, add effects... as well as the system’s user-friendliness are miles ahead of what Facebook and Instagram are offering in terms of video.

It is definitely possible to copy this but it will take time, time that TikTok can use to extend its technical lead.


4. Born globally, rooted locally

TikTok’s primarily visual, which makes its  content language-independent. Like a good Mr Bean episode, most videos can be understood without text. This gave TikTok a global reach from day one and it also makes every bit of content much more valuable to the social network. A text update on Facebook is only relevant to those using the same language, whereas every language-independent video on TikTok is immediately relevant to all users.

At the same time TikTok has also cracked the ‘local’ code to a certain extent. The algorithm that decides which audience gets to see your video also takes location into account. Any videos you make while abroad will tap into a whole new audience. But more importantly: your videos are mainly shown to people from your local neighbourhood, substantially increasing the odds of relevance and ‘liking’.

Yet another competitive advantage for TikTok that is rooted in its fundamentally different algorithm. Here, too, I expect Facebook and Instagram to follow suit at some point - but most likely too late.


5. Rooted in meme culture

The basic mechanism of TikTok istaking a snippet of existing content, iterating on it and letting it mutate. An initially funny or well-made video gets a makeover by thousands of people who give it their own interpretation or a small twist. The tools are also constructed around this principle: duets, whereby one user reacts directly alongside a source video, are a core part of the TikTok experience.

It caters seamlessly to (young) people’s desire to fit in while also making their own mark. In that sense it is very similar to the meme culture on 9gag and Reddit.

Here, too, there is a fundamental difference with Facebook and Instagram, two platforms that thrive on a high ‘look at me’ factor rather than a co-creation vibe.

One way of looking at this dynamic is that it is good news in terms of diversification of social platforms. TikTok offers digital marketers an additional platform next to the Google-Facebook duopoly to reach their target group. Need help?