Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
It’s easy to forget about Instagram Reels.
Instagram’s TikTok competitor rolled out last week, bringing with it a newly revamped Explore tab that attempts to replicate TikTok’s video feed. Alongside a new camera layout designed to make creating easier (spoiler alert: it only made things more complicated), Instagram’s goal was obvious: make Reels a new go-to experience on the app, much like it made Stories blow up in 2016.
But a week after its launch, Reels feels tacked on. It’s impossible not to notice the flood of reuploaded videos from TikTok, with TikTok watermarks still dotting the upper left-hand corner of reel after reel. The authentic reels mostly seem to come from featured Instagram creators, and they’re often based on popular TikTok trends.
The problem is, it’s easy to miss Reels entirely. I have to actively remind myself that I can make a reel (it’s on a second tab within the camera screen) or that I can navigate over to Explore to watch reels. Reels aren’t labeled as such in Stories, so they just play as regular videos, and I haven’t come across any videos labeled as reels on my direct feed. Nothing is being served to me.
That’s the key to TikTok’s not-so-secret recipe for success: it completely removes the paradox of choice, a term coined by psychologist Barry Schwartz that refers to how having more choices can lead to a sense of paralysis, unable to actually choose anything. TikTok never makes you leave its first screen, the For You Page, a never-ending sequence of videos that flip from one to the next at the flick of a finger. Everything is served in one spot, designed to bring videos to you instead of making you find them.
The paradox of choice is a recurring problem for video services. There’s a wealth of entertainment platforms designed to let people watch whatever they want (Netflix, YouTube, Twitch). But in reality, they often make the act of watching and consuming too overwhelming because you have to choose from an endless array of options. Over at Netflix, it’s a problem the team is aware of. Netflix research in 2016 discovered that if people don’t find something within 60–90 seconds, they’ll move on to something else. A Nielsen study last year found that most people spend around seven minutes trying to find something to watch on streaming services like Netflix.
TikTok gets around this problem in two simple (albeit extraordinarily difficult to devise) ways: a finely tuned personalization algorithm that seemingly no other app can compete with and a constant flow of videos all siphoned into one feed. TikTok doesn’t require you to go anywhere once you open the app; just start scrolling, and more videos appear. Very quickly, it will also figure out what you’re interested in (don’t care about witches and skateboarding, but love cats and dances) and surface more of those types of videos, without requiring any engagement on your part other than watching.
Mindless scrolling completely removes the paradox of choice. I don’t have to think about finding something to watch or worry about what I’m going to watch next. Everything is chosen for me, endlessly. Since TikTok is also more of an entertainment network than a social media platform, there’s no pressure to actively participate. The result is an app that requires no effort or knowledge to use, run by an algorithm that constantly surfaces hyper-targeted videos depending on individual interests, all on one page.
It’s the last part of that equation that’s most important. Unlike Reels, which Instagram makes people seek out to enjoy, TikTok just surfaces content. Eugene Wei, a former product officer at Amazon and Hulu, observed that Instagram is now “a Frankenstein of feeds and formats and functions spread across a somewhat confused constellation of apps.”
Instagram baked Stories into the app’s core experience — it’s built directly into the main feed and camera screen — but Reels feels like an afterthought. There might be a fun creator community on Instagram Reels, but unless it’s surfaced upon opening the app, how likely is it that I’m going to seek it out instead of just scrolling through my feed and Stories?
“There’s a reason that many people in the U.S. today describe social media as work,” Wei wrote in his blog post. “And why many, like me, have come to find TikTok a much more fun app to spend time in.”
It is a much more fun app to spend time in. I don’t have to question if I’ll find anything I’m interested in when I open TikTok or spend time trying to find something to watch. I don’t have to think at all. I just open the app and stare at a sea of funny videos until I’ve had my serotonin fix for the day. After spending hours engaging with people on Twitter or trying to find something new to watch on Netflix and YouTube, having an app that removes any thinking whatsoever and lets me mellow out completely by removing the paradox of choice is a welcome distraction.