Recently I tried out Instagram Reels, just to see what the big deal about it is. The first impression wasn’t great. My feed was filled with famous people (KL Rahul was there, along with some bollywood actresses), doing supposedly funny things. Compared to the little I had seen of TikTok (I had the app installed for a day last year), this was barely funny.
In fact, from my first impression it seems like Instagram Reels is a sort of bastard child of TikTok and Quibi (I took a 90 day trial of Quibi and uninstalled after a month, having used it 2-3 times and got bored each time). There is already a “prior reputation network”, based on people’s followers on the main Instagram product. And Reels takes off on this.
This means that for a new person coming into this supposedly new social network, the barriers to entry to getting more followers is rather high. They need to compete with people who already have built their reputations elsewhere (either on the Instagram main product, or in the case of someone like KL Rahul, completely offline).
I was reading this blogpost yesterday that compared and contrasted social networking in the 2000s (blogs) with that of the 2010s (twitter). It’s a nice blogpost, though I should mention that it sort of confirms my biases since I sort of built my reputation using my blog in the late 2000s.
That post makes the same point – blogs created their own reputation networks, while twitter leverages people’s reputations from elsewhere.
The existence of the blue checks points to the way in which the barriers that a new blogger faced entering a community was far lower than is currently the case on twitter. The start-up costs of blogging were higher, but once somebody integrated themselves into a community and began writing, they were judged on the quality of that writing alone. Very little attention was paid to who that person was outside of the blogosphere. While some prominent and well known individuals blogged, there was nothing like the “blue checks” we see on twitter today. It is not hard to understand why this is. Twitter is an undifferentiated mass of writhing souls trying to inflict their angry opinions on the earth. Figuring out who to listen to in this twist of two-sentences is difficult. We use a tweeter’s offline affiliations to separate the wheat and the chaff.
For the longest time, I refrained from putting my real name on this blog (though it was easy enough to triangulate my identity based on all the things I’d written here). This was to create a sort of plausible deniability in case some employer somewhere got pissed off with what I was writing.
Most of the blogosphere was similarly pseudonymous (or even anonymous). A lot of people I got to know through their blogging, I learnt about them from their writing before I could know anything else about them (that came from their “offline lives”). Reputation outside the blogosphere didn’t matter – your standing as a blogger depended on the quality of blogposts, and comments on other people’s blogposts only.
It is similar with TikTok – it’s “extreme machine learning” means that people’s reputations outside the network don’t matter in terms of people’s following on the network, and how likely they are to appear in people’s feeds. Instead, all that matters is the quality of the content on the platform, based (in TikTok’s case) on user engagement on the platform.
So as we look for an alternative to replace TikTok, given that the Chinese Communist Party seems to be able to get supposedly confidential data from it, we need to remember that we need a “fresh network”, or a “credential free” network.
Instagram has done something it’s good at, which is copying. However, given that it relies on existing credentials, Reels will never have the same experience as TikTok. Neither will any other similar product created from an existing social network. What we need is something that can create its own reputation network, bottom up.
Then again, blogging was based on an open platform so it was easy for people to build their networks. With something like TikTok relying heavily on network effects and algorithmic curation, I don’t know if such a thing can happen there.